In a government bid to gain tighter control over the nation’s broadcast media outlets, Hungary’s Parliament voted yesterday to give the prime minister’s office authority over the finances for Hungarian state TV and radio.
Although strictly a budgetary matter, yesterday’s vote is expected to have a tremendous impact on the future of the Hungarian television industry, according to analysts. “It’s dangerous,” declared opposition parliamentarian Peter Molnar.
Specifically, the vote means that next year all financial decisions concerning Magyar Televizio (Hungarian state television) and Magyar Radio will be directly managed by Prime Minister Jozsef Antall, leader of the country’s conservative-Christian coalition.
Analysts warn this situation could undermine the independence of Hungarian broadcasting and even threaten the integrity of the nation’s fledgling democratic system.
In addition, this budgetary amendment, which passed in Parliament by a slim 55% majority, could hinder U.S. investment in the Hungarian television industry.
Prior to yesterday’s vote, the country’s main political parties were reported to be close to agreeing on the makeup of a new media law designed to regulate TV , cable and satellite broadcasting in post-Communist Hungarian society.
Because private broadcasting cannot exist in Hungary without this law, rumors that the media bill was about to be passed pleased many American and European investors who have been waiting for two years to enter the Hungarian market.
But now the future of this bill is in jeopardy. According to some analysts, opposition parties may hold up passage of the media law to protest yesterday’s vote in parliament. Others say the government may decide to delay passage of the media law in order to prevent other broadcasters from entering Hungary before the next election, scheduled to take place in approximately a year and a half.
Most analysts agree that the election is the real motivation behind yesterday’s vote. For two years, Hungary’s two-channel television network has served as a battleground for the nation’s competing political parties. Specifically, the government of Prime Minister Antall has launched several bids to gain influence over the network, which government officials say is unfairly critical of their policies.
One bid–to draft a media law that would give the governing party administrative control over public TV–has thus far been foiled by the opposition parties in Parliament.
Another bid, an attempt to place party “commissars” in key administrative positions in the network, was stopped by Hungary’s President Arpad Goncz, who earlier in the year vetoed several attempts by the prime minister’s office to change the management of public TV.
Yesterday’s budgetary amendment is widely considered to be a third attempt to influence the network by controlling its purse strings.
“They’ve tried everything else and it hasn’t worked,” explained Tibor Szendrei, a Hungarian journalist who has been a close observer of the controversy. “They’ve gone the legal way, the administrative way, and now they’re trying to get financial control of television.”
Although the government states it only wants to return public television to the control of the people, some critics warn that yesterday’s parliamentary vote may eventually turn the networks into a propaganda tool for Hungary’s ruling parties.