Hungarian TV dispute escalates

Communication director ankles pubcaster

The departure of one of the top execs at Hungary’s Magyar Televizio, and the pubcaster’s refusal to reinstate reporters who went on a hunger strike over alleged political meddling in news coverage, have ratcheted up tension in the country’s media sector as the confrontation between the government and opposition parties spills into the streets.

MTV communications director Laszlo Szabo stood down on Wednesday after it was learned that editors had digitally removed an image of a former supreme court justice from a news video; the judge had fallen out of favor with Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party.

On Thursday, leaders of opposition parties Politics Can Be Different (LMP) and the socialist MSzP promised more street demonstrations after thousands of protesters marched in Budapest earlier this week to protest against a new constitution, which they say undermines democracy and freedom of expression.

Protests began at MTV on Dec. 10, when TV news reporters Balazs Navarro Nagy and Aranka Szavuly went on hunger strikes after being fired for failing to obey management orders they deemed politically motivated.

They have now resumed eating but will continue a “rolling strike” to draw attention to press-freedom issues within MTV.

Trouble has been building in Hungary for a year since Prime Minister Viktor Orban introduced curbs on the media. The latest protests have been exacerbated by plans to close Klub Radio, a station sharply critical of the government, and replace it in March with an unknown rival, Autoradio.

The furor over this and other radical moves by Fidesz has even reached Washington, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voicing her concerns in letters to Orban, who has yet to respond, according to Hungarian media reports.

During a visit to Hungary in June, Clinton called for “a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, free press and governmental transparency.”

Fidesz, which won a two-thirds majority in parliamentary elections in April, has failed to respond to criticism, including calls from the European Union that the controversial new constitution be scrapped. Critics say it removes checks and balances put in place in 1989 after the collapse of communism.