March 14. On the eve of a national holiday to celebrate
Hungarian freedom, about 2,000 supporters of the country’s two main
opposition parties and civil rights groups tonight protested the
government’s media policies, which have been criticized in recent days by
the United States, the European Union and press freedom organizations.
„Freedom of the press is endangered,” said Budapest Mayor Gabor Demszky, a
leading figure in the opposition Federation of Free Democrats, whose annual
address Wednesday marking the 1848 revolution will not be broadcast on
national television for the first time in nine years. „It’s a very serious
most recent catalyst for the protests was the government’s decision to
appoint only governing party members to the boards overseeing state television
and radio, which have been accused of tilting news coverage to favor the
two-party center-right governing coalition and excluding opposition figures
from the airwaves. But the government also has been criticized for awarding
radio broadcast frequencies to right-wing supporters, for excluding more
established but independent broadcasters, and for police searches of the
homes and offices of journalists who wrote reports the government objected
to. Governing coalition members also have suggested that journalists be
examined for ties
to the Communist-era secret service and that the media be forced to publish replies to any article someone objects to no matter if it is factual or an opinion piece.
The Vienna-based International Press Institute, in a report released Monday, said „the principles of transparency and accountability were often discarded [by the Hungarian government] in the face of critical or inconvenient news
The state’s media law requires that three eight-member boards for two public television stations and national radio have equal representation from the government and the opposition. But it requires the opposition parties, which
range from the extreme-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party to the Socialist Party, to agree on candidate slates. The Justice and Life Party is insisting on two of the four opposition seats on each of the boards despite having only 14 seats in parliament compared with the Socialists’ 134.
When the law was written in 1996 under the previous government, it required the opposition to field joint delegates if there were fewer than four opposition parties, effectively awarding a veto to the Justice and Life Party after the 1998 parliamentary elections.
Szilard Saszari, a member of parliament for Fidesz, one of the government parties, and head of the legislature’s cultural committee, said tonight he plans to hold all-party talks on the media law Thursday in an effort to reach an agreement. But he said that if the effort fails he will seek to amend the law to allow each party to be represented.
Until now Fidesz, the main party in the government coalition, said a divided opposition is responsible for the failure to create full eight-member boards. And government figures noted that the media law was a creation of
the parties that now find it offensive. With the opposition parties hopelessly divided, the government, as it did last
year, appointed four-member boards with their own supporters on March 1.
The Hungarian chief prosecutor Kalman Gyorgyi resigned this month after he questioned the legality of one-sided boards and then saw government officials dismiss his opinion as irrelevant.
„This is a problem of Hungarian political culture in general and a very bad media law in particular,” said Andra Szekfu, an independent media analyst. According to Szekfu, Hungarian governments, including the previous
Socialist-liberal alliance, have repeatedly viewed public broadcasting as one of the spoils of electoral victory, and all three Hungarian governments since communism fell in 1989 have installed their own supporters in key
management and editorial positions. Moreover successive governments have harassed the press, which can be less than rigorous or fair in what it publishes.
Earlier this month Michael Lake, the European Union ambassador to Hungary, warned the government that its policies damaged Hungary’s efforts to join the alliance. And in a speech last week, U.S. Ambassador Peter Tufo warned
that „Hungary must maintain its reputation as a multi-party democracy. . . .
When it comes to government-financed media, I believe it’s particularly important to keep them open and accessible to all points of view—even those contrary to the government’s.”
Demszky, who will speak about press freedom in his annual address, linked his exclusion from the airwaves to editorial bias at state television, a charge rejected by a spokeswoman for Hungarian State Television.
„It was not a political decision,” said communications director Gyorgyi Bende of the decision not to broadcast Demszky’s speech. „It turned out that all the major countryside events will coincide with that time, and since we
cover Budapest events all day, we have to cover the countryside too.”