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Hungarians Protest State's Crackdown On Broadcast Media

Recent censorship, suspension of editors point to state's attempt to control news

HUNGARY'S state-run television and radio have come under stricter control by the government in recent weeks, bringing the country's two-year-old ``media war'' to a new field of battle.

The ruling Hungarian Democratic Forum ``is systematically abolishing the alternative news programs, and only harsh government propagandists remain in control of the airwaves,'' says parliament member Miklos Haraszty, who is a former editor of the underground newspaper Beszelo.

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Thousands of Hungarians took to the streets in early November in a series of protests against censorship and the recent suspension of a prominent television journalist.

``This is only the first step,'' cried Jozsef Forgacs, a small-town reporter who traveled 45 miles to voice his concern. ``We [rural journalists] might be next, and total press freedom could disappear. I don't want to report government propaganda.''

The latest development in the crackdown came Oct. 26, when Andras Bano, editor-in-chief of a popular news program noted for its objectivity, was suspended for allegedly doctoring a newscast. Mr. Bano, who insists on his innocence, was replaced by the head of a more pro-government news program, but the remaining employees refused to work for their new boss and walked off the job. (Hungary's `black' economy, Page 10.)

The new editor ``is a right-wing nationalist,'' says Bano, ``and the government forces that carried out this plot knew my honest staff would not work with him.''

Similar changes have taken place in Hungary's state-run radio, where a newly appointed editor suspended several of his employees and called for ethics investigations against journalists who have openly criticized the government. And eight months ago, the presidents of Hungarian Radio and Hungarian Television stepped down from their posts under heavy pressure from the government.

The recent crackdown against the press coincides with growing dissatisfaction with the government, says Janos Horvath, a prominent Hungarian journalist. ``There is a myth [in this region] that if you own the airwaves, you own the ideology, and can influence people,'' he says. ``This is an outdated concept. Hungarians are mature and they see through these tactics.''

And the controversy is complicated by the fact that Hungary lacks a media law that guarantees free speech for broadcasters. Although Hungary has scores of independent newspapers, the government owns and runs all television and radio broadcasting and regulates its news media with a communist-era law. Private radio and television channels must wait until parliament comes up with new legislation before they can operate. Some broadcasters, including Radio Free Europe, have given up.

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As a consequence, opposition parties are afraid they will not be able to get their messages out to the public before next year's parliamentary elections. ``The rights of the tax-paying audience ... to get impartial, objective, and plural information is seriously diminished,'' parliament member Haraszty says.

``Press freedom is a whole missing dimension of democratization in this country,'' Mr. Haraszty says. ``I believe a new democracy like this is incapable of producing a free press until ... [the state learns that] it is a very bad business to control the media.''

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