Muted Protests Why Are European Companies Silent about Hungarian Media Law?

Hungary's highly controversial new media law put on the books in December can effectively muzzle unfavorable reporting and has drawn criticism from across Europe, but the protests of the German and Swiss media companies doing business in Budapest have seemed muted.

A newsstand in Budapest, the capital of Hungary: Under the country's new media law, the government can impose ruinous penalties on newspapers and broadcasters that report critically.
Martin Fejer/EST&OST

A newsstand in Budapest, the capital of Hungary: Under the country's new media law, the government can impose ruinous penalties on newspapers and broadcasters that report critically.

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Claus Kleber would have a problem if the popular news show he anchors on German public broadcaster ZDF were to be aired in Hungary. Under section 12, subsection 3 of Hungary's new and highly controversial media law, an anchor cannot insert his own opinion or value judgment into his scripts -- a practice that is common on Kleber's prime-time national newscast.

The controversial media law drastically limits freedom of the press, and many journalists in Hungary already believe that it is unconstitutional. It was quickly railroaded through the parliament, published on Dec. 31, 2010, and became law a day later.

The central component of the new rule is the formation of a council of political appointees that supervises all media. It can impose ruinous penalties as drastic as a ban on media appearances, or even the shutdown of a media outlet. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán appointed the head of the new council to a nine-year term without parliamentary approval.

Publications with Critical Reporting Feel Pinch

Unrestricted reporting is already problematic in Hungary, where state-owned enterprises are responsible for a good share of the advertising placed with broadcasters and publications. The country's most important daily newspaper, Népszabadság, recently lost a large account with a state-owned company that was worth more than 90 million forint (about €325,000, or $455,000), a loss the paper attributes to its critical reporting.

Many beleaguered Hungarian journalists feel left high and dry by their publishers, most of which are in Western hands.

"It makes more sense to raise a hue and cry locally than to protest from Germany," says Bodo Hombach, managing director of Germany's WAZ Media Group, which includes the respected political magazine HVG among its stable of publications in Hungary. According to Hombach, WAZ provides its senior editors with local support.

'Problematic Provisions'

"We condemn any restrictions on the freedom of the press," says Christoph Keese, head of public affairs at Axel Springer AG. Germany's Springer is the largest publishing company in Hungary and also one of Europe's powerhouses. "The law contains a number of problematic provisions that could be misused to curb the freedom of the press."

Meanwhile, Switzerland's Ringier Publishing, which owns Népszabadság, has not commented on the new law. Representatives say the company first wants to see what the concrete effects of the law will be. Ringier's reticence could have something to do with the fact that government approval, under antitrust laws, of a planned merger between Axel Springer and Ringier in Hungary is still pending.

The operators of TV stations even see the new rules as providing slight benefits. In the past, a station could be taken off the air for 30 days if the government disapproved of its reporting. In the future, the government will be able to shut down stations for no more than a week. "Under the new media law, the sanctions for private TV stations are similar to those under the old law," say officials at the Germany's RTL Group, which operates RTL Klub, the market leader in Hungary. "Our colleagues in Hungary have been dealing with more intensive regulation since they first went on the air in 1997," the company says.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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