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Vice President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda
The Hungarian Media Environment
European Parliament Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs CommitteeLiberties, Justice and Home Affairs
Brussels, 9th February 2012
Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today.
I continue to have grave concerns about the current situation in Hungary.
So does the European Commission as an institution.
And these concerns are based on facts, not myths!
I am happy to have had the opportunity to discuss these directly with Deputy Prime Minister Navracsics in advance of this hearing.
As you know, we recently sent three infringement letters to the Hungarian authorities: on the independence of the central bank, the retirement age of judges and the independence of the data protection authority.
On these points, the Hungarian authorities have yet to reply, so I will not comment further on these procedures.
However, our concerns are much wider: on Hungary's economic policy stance, on the quality of its democracy and on its political culture.
Let me therefore take the opportunity today to speak about the media environment in general, including the threat of the current media law to freedom of the press.
That is significant, and not just because of the fundamental right to free expression.
There is also an economic significance.
Because private investors and international institutions need to know they have full access to independent media analysis.
The Hungarian authorities should be careful not to give them any other impression. Instead, we need positive signals.
As President Barroso stressed to the last EP plenary three weeks ago, by acting in a responsible and democratic manner, and in the best interests of all Hungarian citizens, the Hungarian authorities can gain and keep the confidence of citizens, partners and investors.
Through a legally stable environment, based on the rule of law, democratic principles and fundamental rights.
What is more, threats to press freedom need to be seen as part of a wider picture.
I myself have talked with people from Hungary - only the other day, for example, to a very talented web entrepreneur, one of my "young advisers" on digital matters.
And the picture he painted is deeply troubling.
For example, he tells of a country where discrimination against minorities is rife, and getting worse.
He tells me people from minorities are discriminated against when they seek employment; he speaks of allegations that the police are under instructions to "monitor" minorities; that racist discourse is becoming more open and more accepted, and that some even live in fear of violent attacks.
This particular person, himself from the Roma community, is seriously considering leaving the country.
I do not want to rush to judgment on the basis of such statements.
But the restriction of media freedom has to be seen in this context: in this environment, media pluralism, the ability to hear different views and voices, is even more crucial.
Back in January last year, I addressed some of the most key issues relating to the Hungarian Media Laws.
Their compatibility with EU law in general, and with the Audiovisual Media Services Directive in particular.
And we worked constructively with the Hungarian government, and in particular Tibor Navracsics, to deliver the amendments to the media law that were needed to comply with the limited EU rules in this field.
But I also made clear that I would follow the developments closely and speak up when I saw the need.
This is why I am here today.
Klubrádió is one example.
It is one of the few remaining radio stations providing an important forum for opposition voices.
In the latest spectrum tender for Budapest, it seems that high music content was given priority over this political commentary and discussion.
While there is legally Member State discretion in this area, I am worried when that discretion is exercised to the detriment of media pluralism.
To be blunt: if you set technical conditions that work against political talk radio, do not be surprised if you have less political discussion on the radio!
Of course, I am not a spokesperson for a particular media outlet.
But I have had a detailed discussion with Mr Arato 2 weeks ago and I'm sure he can speak more about the particular case of Klubrádió.
We need to find a sustainable solution that ensures a pluralistic media landscape, including political comment and criticism, in broadcast media such as radio.
Let me turn to the more general situation.
As many of you will know, on 19 December 2011, the Hungarian Constitutional Court found that the media law unconstitutionally limited freedom of the written press.
I urged the Hungarian authorities to respect and implement this court ruling rapidly.
It seems that they are now preparing the changes needed in line with the ruling.
That is certainly welcome, but not yet enough!
In the EU, respect for media freedom and pluralism is not, and should not be, only about the technically correct application of EU and national law.
Rather, it is also about implementing and promoting fundamental democratic principles in practice.
Ultimately, media pluralism and freedom depend on the right atmosphere and political culture.
A recent study indicates that Hungary’s media laws go beyond European practices and norms.
In particular when you look at their overall scope and effect: when you look at the combination of provisions about the Media Authority’s independence and centralised structure, its powers - in particular the power to sanction - and the wide scope of application of the media laws: application to audiovisual, radio, online and print.
And the following is a fact, not a myth:
The danger of high fines for breaching unclear rules can result in self-censorship – even if no fines are ever imposed.
You might also be aware of the independent EU High-Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism chaired by Professor Vike-Freiberga, the former President of Latvia.
After studying the case of Hungary on 25 January, they came to the assessment - and I quote – that "Hungary had put itself in a position of potential danger to media freedom and the Government would be wise to consider how to get out of it".
That is why the Hungarian Government needs to do more and act quickly to reassure the Commission, this committee, and all those who have concerns, to show that it is serious about protecting freedom of expression and media pluralism.
The Council of Europe has been setting standards to protect fundamental rights in Europe for over 50 years.
And that is why the Commission is cooperating closely with them on a range of issues – including on the issue of media freedom.
I have recently spoken to Mr. Jagland – the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.
They are ready to do their part.
The Commission expects two key things from the Hungarian government. Over the past weeks and again today we have made these things clear to Deputy Prime Minister Navracsics and we have it made it clear to his colleagues.
Today I am making them clear to you.
1) First, the Hungarian Government should explicitly and transparently ask the Council of Europe for a comprehensive opinion on the compliance of the media legislation, and its application in practice, with fundamental values as enshrined in benchmark texts such as the European Convention on Human Rights.
2) Second, and just as importantly, the Hungarian authorities should accept and implement any concrete recommendations that would be made by the Council of Europe.
The Deputy Prime Minister promised these two things to me in our meeting two hours ago, so I expect that he, on behalf of the Hungarian Government, publicly commits to both as soon as possible: ideally today to all of you.
The Commission will not be satisfied with the overall situation until any concerns that may be raised by the Council of Europe are properly and fully addressed.
We have no time to waste.
The Hungarian Government should dispel doubts about its full adherence to European values.
But until Mr Navracsics speaks, it is not yet clear, not only to me, but also to my Commission colleagues and to this House, that it intends to do so