HCLU protests against the proposed new media legislation

The new media-press regulation plan is unfounded, and fails to meet established European freedom of press standards. Moreover, the so-called “media package” sponsored by two right-wing MPs from the governing party (Antal Rogán, András Cser-Palkovics), contains bills with several unconstitutional clauses. The bills would bring about significant changes to the functioning of printed press, television, radio and part of the internet as well. The HCLU disapproves of the process by which the new parliamentary majority has gone about building a completely new regulation plan without any previous consultation, open debate with stakeholders, experts or journalists.  This is foolhardy at best, since the bills represent an attempt at a far-reaching overhaul in media regulation.

1. Once the media package was introduced to the Parliament, it encountered so many protests that the sponsors backed down, and postponed its parliamentary discussion to the autumn. In the meantime, the MPs of the government parliamentary majority and the opposition have proposed several amendments to the bills. We took the proposed amendments into account in our assessment and observations to these pieces of legislation below: The basic approach of the governmental plan, namely to put all media in the same regulatory basket, contradicts current European policy tendencies. The development of digital technology makes a significant part of media regulation package unreasonable, an aspect that the authors of the bills did not seem to take into account. The HCLU advises the government to reconsider the diverse functions and nature of different content providers in order to comply with EU regulations and the requirements of the media.

2. The original draft legislation would have introduced a compulsory registration system for all content providers, including every digital media content provider. It would have included radio, TV-channels and all internet content providers, meaning that the 250 000 Hungarian blogs would have had the obligation to register as well. This kind of unreasonable registration system is unknown in modern democracies, and would create a serious administrative burden for everyone. Because it would have established the same rules for blogs and news media, compulsory registration of content providers is not only unreasonable, but also endangers freedom of speech. In the meantime, one modification from an MP of the majority (Laszlo L. Simon, head of the Press Committee of the Parliament) would ease this undue burden excluding blogs of compulsory registration. The HCLU considers all kind of pre-registration for content providers unnecessary curtailment of the freedom of speech.

3. The original media package seeks to introduce the so-called “Right of Reply” into the Hungarian press. This clause would have required every content provider to print responses to any published article that someone objects to – in whole or in part – regardless of whether the published information was factually true or expressed as an opinion. A modification by an MP Laszlo L. Simon aims to restrict the right to reply to factually wrong statements. It is for sure an obvious improvement compared to the previous – admittedly unconstitutional – version, though it still falls short of an acceptable solution. A right to reply to factually wrong statement already exists in Hungarian law, but the modification would shorten the publication deadline of newspapers to an unrealistic 5 days (instead of the existing 8). In the case of media published other than daily, it is simply impossible to comply with this 5 day requirement.

4. The Press Bill aims to establish an obligation for media to inform the public about “events that are important for the citizens of the Hungarian Republic and the Hungarian nation” and about the ongoing issues in European public life. This clause brings us back to authoritarian times. Without further clarification, it is impossible to discern what could constitute an “important event” or “issue”. Thus, this bill creates room for arbitrary sanctions. The very idea of creating obligations for the media based on content is strange in a democracy and endangers the freedom of press. The modification proposed by MP Laszlo L. Simon states that not every content provider shall bear this obligation but the totality of the media as a whole. Due to uncertainties in the text of the proposed modification, the objections raised prior still remain. Firstly, that the national media authority could sanction for failure to inform about “important events” still remains in the text. Secondly, the “totality of content media” as legal term is too vague and fails to clarify whether individual content providers would have a specific information obligation or not.

5. Unfortunately, one important parts of the package has already been passed by the Parliament, the Constitution’s “freedom of opinion” (Article 61) clause. The constitution modification states that everyone has the right to the freedom of speech along with freedom of opinion. This modification does not seem to serve any legitimate interest, as no one can predict what legal changes would it involve, if any. In this case, the modification is simply pointless. The HCLU refuses the useless, arbitrary modification of the basic law of the Republic.

The HCLU considers the whole media package ill-prepared and highly restrictive. The HCLU calls on the Parliament to launch an open debate on the regulation of media and the press, as it should have done when these bills were introduced. It is high time to get rid of the outdated Press bill, dysfunctional media legislation and other restrictions but this attempt at an overhaul fails to take that direction. The chilling effect that this legislative package would produce for free speech is considerable and does not serve the needs of a free, democratic and plural society.

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