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Hungary says its press freedom is 'completely perfect.' Europe disagrees.

Europe continues to criticize Hungary over its restrictive media laws, which give Prime Minister Victor Orbán's governing party vast control over the regulation of press outlets.

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán presents his annual state-of-the-nation speech in Budapest, Hungary, last week.

Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

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When the European Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee called last week for Europe to regularly investigate journalist freedom across the EU, it didn't name any particular country to watch. But if there has been one European nation that has been criticized for changing its media laws in the past years, it's Hungary.

Since coming to power in 2010 with a two-thirds majority in parliament, right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has pushed through a series of unopposed changes to the Central European country's constitution and laws. Among those were revisions to Hungary's media laws and regulations that included huge fines for "imbalanced" or "insulting" coverage, weakened protections for journalistic sources, and a regulatory Media Council to enforce the law with a minimum of checks to its power.

As a result, Hungary has come under ongoing criticism from both representatives of European organizations and various press freedom advocates. Although the criticism has prompted Mr. Orbán's government to temper the laws somewhat – it says it has responded accurately to criticism about its media laws – it has not been able to persuade everyone, more than two years after the laws' implementation.

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European Commissioner Neelie Kroes, one of the most vocal critics of Hungary's media policies, is “still not happy” with the media situation in Hungary, according to a spokesperson.  Ms. Kroes, who spoke to the Civil Liberties Committee to advise on press freedom issues, wrote last year that Hungarian democracy is "at risk if rule of law and access to information are not guaranteed. News reporting should not be censored or controlled by a government’s actions." She added that she had "serious" concerns about Hungary's media laws, despite the modest reforms it implemented.

Another critical voice came recently from Reporters Without Borders. The Paris-based media monitor downgraded the Central European country last month with 16 points on its 2013 Press Freedom Index. Hungary, which dropped on the ranking from 40 to 56, “is still paying the price of its repressive legislative reforms, which had a major impact on the way journalists work.”

'Just as free as it was'

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But government spokesman Ferenc Kumin laughs off the suggestion that he gets tired of having to answer questions about Hungary's media atmosphere.

“Oh you know, I'm not tired of them”, says Mr. Kumin, whose official job title is deputy state secretary for international communications. Speaking in Hungary's prime ministerial office, which is based in the capital's immense parliament building on the shore of the Danube river, he says “Whenever there is a question, that's fine, we are happy with that. The problem is when there are no questions.”

“We always ask the critical voices to focus on the facts. In many cases we see that these critical voices are more emotion-based and not that much interested in the actual facts,” Kumin says.

Kumin also waves off Reporters Without Borders' criticism. “That's an organization of journalists, of activists – journalist-activists. With all due respect, they have a unique perspective. Journalists are always very sensitive whenever a regulation changes. The press is just as free as it was,” he says.

Many Hungarian journalists write freely without fear of persecution, says journalist Kósa András in a basement café in Budapest, where some of the visitors dance to typical gypsy music. “I have never felt any kind of restriction or pressure,” says Mr. András, who works for the online version of HVG, an economic weekly magazine. HVG discovered last year that then-President Pal Schmitt had copied most of his dissertation, but “none of us felt any kind of pressure” not to report the story.

What could happen if a Hungarian journalist wrote a critical article? “Practically nothing,” says economist Ágnes Urbán, a member of Hungarian media watchdog Mérték. Nevertheless, self-censorship for fear of government retribution seems quite strong in Hungary, especially in public media. This phenomena was widespread and perhaps even logical during the repressive communist era, but now? “It is really absurd. Self-censorship is much stronger than is required,” Mrs. Urbán says.

'Embodiment of arbitrary power'

Péter Molnár, a researcher at the Center for Media and Communication Studies at Central European University, sees two reasons why self-censorship exists in Hungary's press environment.

One, he says, is the concentration of power in the Media Council, which is among other things responsible for allocating radio frequencies. The other is the way that advertisements are used to pressure media.

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The Media Council, the body that was set up to enforce the new Hungarian media law that came into effect in 2011, “is an embodiment of arbitrary power,” Mr. Molnár says. Critics like Molnár say the council lacks independence and transparency – all five board members are affiliated with Orbán's governing party Fidesz. “The Media Council has been using its power to allocate airwaves almost exclusively to government-friendly radio stations,” thereby ensuring positive coverage for itself, says Molnár.

Since the new media laws came into effect, Hungary has received criticism from both the European Commission – the executive body of the European Union – and the Council of Europe, a regional organization that promotes human rights and democracy in its 47 member states, though the Council is more positive about the improvements in Hungary's media law than the EU. “Significant progress has been made,” Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland said in a press conference late last month.

One example of that progress: Originally, the Hungarian government had wanted to give police officials the power to demand the name of journalist's source. Budapest has promised to change that provision and make sure only a judge can decide whether a journalist must name his source. The Council says that journalistic sources are now “adequately protected.”

While the Hungarian government sees the Council of Europe's report as proof that “the Media Authority is completely perfect how it is now” – per Judit Pach, head of the department of the international communications office – the Council itself emphasizes that “cooperation between the Council of Europe and Hungary will continue on Media Acts to further improve the legislation.”

Advertisers' clout

Another problem in Hungary that predates Orbán's government, says Molnár, is the power of Hungary's many state-owned companies to sway coverage through their allocation of advertisement money.

According to Hungarian journalists, there used to be an arrangement for allocating these ad funds called the "70-30 system": Newspapers that supported the governing party would receive 70 percent of the ads, while the newspapers that were affiliated with the opposition would get 30 percent.

Atilla Mesterházy, leader of the Hungarian Socialist Party, admits the existence of such an arrangement. “Before, it was quite usual that state-owned companies' advertisements were balanced between the right-wing and the left-wing media,” Mr. Mesterházy says. The Hungarian Socialist Party was part of a coalition government between 2002 and 2010.

But now that system is a thing of the past. “Now you cannot find any penny that they spend on the opposition media,” he says.

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