Hungarian gov’t may change media law

Prime minister Viktor Orban will comply with EU rules

A controversial media law in Hungary that’s drawn a storm of international criticism over concerns that it could curb freedom of expression could be changed if it is found to be out of line with European Union law, the country’s prime minister said Thursday.

Viktor Orban, who heads the conservative Fidesz party, told a Budapest press conference that he was ready to change the law if required by the EU.

The law, introduced on Saturday — the day Hungary took over the rotating presidency of the EU — is Europe’s toughest. It gives a new government-chaired centralized media body powers to fine TV stations, radio outlets and newspapers up to nearly $1 million for reports considered politically biased or offensive to human dignity.

It also removes the right of journalists to protect their sources in cases involving national security and gives the government powers to inspect media equipment and documents.

The law has prompted sharp criticism from France and Germany, as well as a rash of newspaper and Internet protests in Hungary. European Commission prexy Jose Manuel Barroso has warned that “freedom of the press is a sacred principle” and said that he would discuss the matter with Orban.

On Thursday, Orban defended the law and defied “anyone to find anything in it that is not in other EU member states’ media laws.”

If Hungary’s media laws need changing, the laws of other countries, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, would have to change too, he said.

EU legal experts will examine a translated version of the law to see if it complies with EU legislation.

Eva Simon, head of the freedom of speech program of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, told Daily Variety that she believes the law violates EU regulations in a number of key areas.

Orban’s comments are likely to do little to quell the protests against the new laws.

Internet activists Thursday blacked out websites in a protest against what they claim is an attack on freedom of expression. The action had called on Web users “in Hungary and beyond” to “react to this blatant attack against the Internet” by “displaying an image or turning their whole website black.” A Facebook site dedicated to the protest had attracted more than 2,100 comments Thursday, mostly in Hungarian.

It was the latest in a rash of protests in Hungary, where leading national newspapers have published front pages signalling their opposition to the new law. Influential daily newspaper Nepszabadsag ran a front page stating “In Hungary there is no longer freedom of press” translated into the 23 languages used in the EU.