Hungary's new media law, which requires all media to register as such and provide "balanced" coverage of national and EU events, was debated by the Civil Liberties and the Culture committees in Strasbourg on Monday. Some MEPs urged Hungary to withdraw the law immediately, whilst others urged it to wait until the European Commission has assessed its compatibility with EU legislation and fundamental rights. Justice minister Tibor Navracsics promised to amend it if necessary.
"We are looking very carefully at the provisions and will make a legal assessment of the law. (...) We have been in contact with the Hungarian government in order to raise specific concerns", said Digital agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes. She added that the Commission is assessing the new law's compatibility with the EU Audiovisual and Media Services (AVMS) Directive, and that preliminary examination had already indicated some problems, such as its apparent application to media firms established in other EU countries, the rules on media registration, unclear definitions and political control over the media authority .
Hungarian deputy prime minister and minister of justice Tibor Navracsics defended the new law, which is intended to replace outdated provisions and implement the EU directive. "All of these comments were already out and about before the law was approved", stressed the minister. "If the Commission finds any inconsistencies, the government is ready to take steps to bridge them", he added.
Politically motivated debate?
"There is a great deal of political motivation behind this debate", said Simon Busuttil (EPP, MT), stressing that his group prefers to wait for the Commission's complete assessment of the law. The group "attaches great importance to media freedoms", yet "it would be wrong to single out a single Member State for condemnation", especially when it holds the EU presidency, he said. "This law presents no problems in terms of human rights, and nothing can justify this collective hysteria", agreed Kinga Gál (EPP, HU).
Same criteria for all Member States
Manfred Weber (EPP, DE), proposed that the Commission should examine the media laws of all 27 Member States and not just Hungary. "My experts are well aware of all national laws. And we will not act against Hungary without acting on media rules in other countries, that would be unfair", replied Ms Kroes, stressing that "the EU is objective and non-discriminatory between Member States, governments or political families".
Claude Moraes (S&D, UK), agreed that all Member States must comply with EU law. "We are not interested in targeting a particular country, but in analysing whether EU rules have been breached" he said, adding that the Hungarian media law "raised concerns all over Europe".
What is balanced communication?
Several MEPs voiced concerns about the "balanced communication" requirement. "There are different truths or different opinions of the truth out there. (...) Listening to different media is what makes democracy stronger", argued Judith Sargentini (Greens/EFA, NL). Yet the minister defended the need for the balanced coverage requirement "given the broad influence that the media have on public opinion". "In Hungary this concept is not unrealistic (...) It has emerged from political and legal debate and is broadly accepted", he added, urging that Hungary's "level of democratic maturity" be taken into account.
The minister also pointed out that "in Hungary we have independent courts. (...) Decisions could be appealed". Furthermore, "if you read Hungarian newspapers, especially during the last weeks, you will see very full freedom of expression", he told MEPs.
Calls to suspend the law
Rui Tavares (GUE/NGL, PT), warned against public authorities over-regulating the media, and said the Hungarian government should suspend the application of the law while the Commission examines it. Kinga Göncz (S&D, HU), suggested withdrawing the law altogether, given the strongly negative international reaction to it.
The fact that this law is so widely criticised shows that something in it is seriously wrong, observed Tanja Fajon (S&D, SL). She was particularly concerned about a requirement that journalists disclose their sources in certain cases. Monica Macovei (EPP, RO), asked about the state of investigative journalism in Hungary. Mr Navracsics replied that the new law protects investigative journalists better than ever before.
Will the EU monitor media freedom?
"This debate is not about Hungary, but about the credibility of the EU and the enforcement of fundamental rights", said Sophia In 't Veld (ALDE, NL). She advocated creating an EU media monitoring tool and assessing the risk of media self-censorship as a result of a faulty law.
"The real question is whether the EU is currently equipped to solve such problems", observed Morten Løkkegaard (ALDE, DK). In reply, Mrs Kroes outlined the Commission's media monitoring efforts to date and promised a follow-up on this issue. Most importantly, however, "we got the guarantee from the Hungarian government that they are listening and they will act", she concluded.
In the chair: Juan Fernando LÓPEZ AGUILAR (S&D, ES) (Civil Liberties) and Doris PACK (EPP, DE) (Culture)