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Europe bites Hungary over media and internet censorship

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A rumble of protest is spreading across Europe in reaction to a new media censorship law in Hungary.

Yesterday, Europe’s Digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes told an Extraordinary meeting of the European Parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee that the EU had been in touch with the Hungarian government and had deep concerns about the nature of a new media law, which came into force on 1 January 2011.

The law made those responsible for material published in Hungary - both through traditional channels and online - subject to heavy fines and sanctions if their coverage is deemed to be "unbalanced or immoral".

Ms Kroes said that in addition to writing to the Hungarian authorities in December, raising specific concerns regarding their compliance with the EU Audiovisual and Media Services (AVMS) Directive, she has also visited Budapest to discuss the matter with the competent Minister.

She believes that the Media Law may risk jeopardising fundamental rights in a number of ways, including its requirement that all media - including online media such as forums and blogs - be registered, and by making the Media Authority subject to political control through the appointment process.

The Media Law "seems to raise a problem under the AVMS Directive because its provisions appear to apply also to media firms established in other Member States, which would be contrary to the "country of origin" principle," she said. The comments largely echoed a similar speech to MEPs she made to MEPs the previous week.

The Reg was first alerted to the issue by Liberal Democrat European justice and human rights spokeswoman and London MEP Baroness Ludford, who told us: “The EU cannot stand idly by while fundamental liberties are being undermined within its borders.”

Debates were organised by the Liberal group in the European Parliament (ALDE) earlier this month.

Martin Schulz, the leader of the European parliament's socialist group, has decried the media law as "not compatible with EU principles”.

The Greens want Hungary to be stripped of its right to hold the EU presidency for the next six months. The EU Commission President has raised the issue with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn has warned that if Hungary does not change the law "it will be very difficult to talk to China or Iran about human rights".

Meanwhile, there were protests in Budapest at the weekend, as an estimated 10,000 Hungarians gathered in the square in front of Hungary's parliament building late on Friday.

Legal adviser to Hungary’s media council Gyorgy Ocsko insists this is not a return to the days of communist control. "This has nothing to do with the old style censorship that prevailed in the communist times. The legislator had one goal namely to make journalists respect human dignity. And this is our aim with the possible fining and possible sanctioning of, let's say, newspapers.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Vikto Orban also denies that the law violates EU Rules, and that he will only accept changes to the legislation if the European Commission can prove that the law is not in line with European standards.

"The text is very European. There is no special regulation, no special Hungarian legislation in this law. All paragraphs and elements of this [legislation] are imported from EU Countries. So I think it is a European regulation.”

While the new law may be bad news for free speech, there was better news this week for rapper Ice-T, whose songs Warning It's On [NSFW] had looked like being the law’s first victim, even though they were broadcast last September.

Following reports that an investigation would be launched into broadcasts put out by Tilos Rádió, which included the Ice-T tracks, the media council last week announced they wre dropping their investigation on the grounds that the radio station’s audience was mostly grown up. ®

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