New huge pro-government media conglomerate in Hungary threatens freedom of speech

Expression

In November 2018, 476 media outlets became part of the new Hungarian media holding organisation controlled by pro-government forces, the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA - in Hungarian: Közép-európai Sajtó- és Média Alapítvány). The media outlets were owned by pro-government oligarchs who donated them to KESMA for free. According to media reports, most of the publications donated to the Foundation were affiliated to allies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

KESMA is estimated to hold around 16 percent of Hungary’s media market and 37 percent of all advertising revenue. By bringing into its pro-government foundation two TV news channels and several radio stations as well as all of the country’s regional print papers, observers say that KESMA will have a monopoly in certain market segments, such as regional newspapers, and it will be the only private player among radio stations with nationwide coverage.

In addition, to remove the outlets from any regulatory scrutiny, the Prime Minister Viktor Orban exempted the organisation by a decree citing public interest.

The move was strongly condemned by international and local media rights organisations and has been seen as another attempt by the government to destroy media freedom.

The International Press Institute said: “It’s obvious that a media company of this size distorts the market to a degree where it can hardly be considered free anymore. […] These media outlets, even before being brought under one umbrella, always had very similar, staunchly pro-government editorial lines, but will now probably publish the same stories word-for-word, thereby further strengthening the propaganda messages that the government wants to disseminate.”

The European and International Federations of Journalists (EFJ-IFJ) and their affiliates in Hungary, HPU and MUOSZ, called on Hungarian authorities to obstruct the formation of the media conglomerate that “questions media pluralism”.

EFJ and IFJ called on the European Commission to “treat attempts by the Hungarian government to harm media freedom and pluralism as a serious and systemic abuse of power” and stated:

“EU Member States have the positive obligation to ensure media pluralism and an environment in which citizens can participate in public debate and express ideas and opinions without fear.”

In a separate positive development, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), a human rights organisation in regular contact with the CIVICUS Monitor, and the London based Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) won a case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) with a serious impact on freedom of speech.

The case concerns judgements by Hungarian courts that the 444 news portal had damaged the reputation of a political party by hyperlinking to a third-party video. The ECtHR found that the rulings of the Hungarian courts establishing objective liability for the news portal constituted a disproportionate restriction on its right to freedom of expression and had amounted to an infringement of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In its judgement, ECtHR ruled that the Hungarian courts deliberately failed to examine whether the journalist and the outlet had acted in good faith and showed respect for journalistic ethics. The ECtHR stated:

“In the Court’s view, such objective liability may have foreseeable negative consequences on the flow of information on the Internet, impelling article authors and publishers to refrain altogether from hyperlinking to material over whose changeable content they have no control. This may have, directly or indirectly, a chilling effect on freedom of expression on the Internet.”

The Hungarian press could be held responsible for hyperlinking third-party content that it does not necessarily identify with, even when the reporting was conscientious and respected the ethical rules of journalism. In its analysis of the above case, the ECtHR said that this would “result in an undue burden for publishers, since they could only publish information whose veracity they had established beyond any doubt, making reporting on controversial matters impossible.”

The HCLU's lawyer Dalma Dojcsák welcomed the decision, saying:“[The decision] obliges Hungarian courts, including the Constitutional Court, to develop a more nuanced approach with respect to hyperlinking on the internet. Henceforward, journalists, bloggers and internet users embedding hyperlinks in their content should not have to be concerned about the legal repercussions as long as they act responsibly."  

Association

In December 2018, European human rights institutions called on Hungary to abolish the special immigration tax imposed on organisations that "support immigration”. The “special tax” was adopted through the June 2018 law.

On 17 December 2018, the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s Fundamental Rights Advisory Body, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) issued a joint opinion stating that imposing a 25 percent tax on groups alleged to be aiding immigration “constitutes an unjustified interference with the rights to freedom of expression and of association of the NGOs affected.”

The human rights organisations’ joint opinion concluded:

“The imposition of this special tax will have a chilling effect on the exercise of fundamental rights and on individuals and organisations who defend these rights or support their defence financially. It will deter potential donors from supporting these NGOs and put more hardship on civil society engaged in legitimate human rights activities. For all these reasons, the provision as examined in the present opinion should be repealed.”

Hungarian authorities rejected the criticism as being political and Balázs Orbán, the State Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office accused the Venice Commission of “siding with those that support migration”.

Civil society organisations in Hungary have been campaigning for the withdrawal of the special immigration tax, arguing it is an “arbitrary tribute imposed on NGOs and their supporters for unacceptable reasons and purposes.” The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), a national human rights organisation affected by the legislation, believes that the Venice Commission’s statement will help their case in front of the European Court of Human Rights. In September 2018, the HHC announced that the organisation filed a complaint with the Hungarian Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) against the new criminal provision, threatening with imprisonment those assisting asylum seekers. The HHC argued that criminalisation of those assisting asylum seekers “lacks any legitimate aim, is unnecessary and disproportionate” and that “The new law’s wording is extremely vague, allowing for arbitrary implementation by the authorities.”

Peaceful Assembly

In November 2018, thousands of students protested in Budapest in support of the Central European University (CEU) calling on the government to sign off on a deal that would allow the university to stay in the country. Media reported that students from the CEU and other universities including ELTE and Corvinus attended the rally in front of the Hungarian parliament. In December 2018, the CEU, founded by George Soros, announced it would leave Budapest for Vienna the next year amid strong pressure from Hungary's right-wing government, including a protracted legal battle with the Hungarian government.

The CEU’s rector, Michael Ignatieff said during a press conference in Budapest: “This is a dark day for freedom in Hungary, and it’s a dark day for academic freedom.”

A new series of anti-government demonstrations was triggered following the passage of two controversial laws in December 2018. One of the laws, the main focus of the protests, was dubbed the ‘slave law’. The so called “slave law” allows employers to demand that their employees work from 250 to 400 hours annually, and also allows payment to be delayed by up to three years. The second law involves changes to the judicial system, and is described by critics as the conservative ruling Fidesz party’s latest move to take control of independent institutions.

The passage of the laws triggered widespread resentment and in response people took to the streets to protest. There have been allegations that at times some demonstrators committed violations as police responded disproportionately and unlawfully, according to human rights CSOs.

According to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) who provided legal assistance to those arrested and charged during the December protests, police may be prosecuting innocent people as among those arrested were peaceful protesters and people who had not even participated in the events. The HCLU also said that “many of those involved in the spontaneous protest” on 12 December 2018 against the new "slave law" were taken into custody.

A Canadian student from the Central European University (CEU) was arrested while taking part in the protests on 12 December 2018 and charged with a "felony against a public official committed in a gang”. He denied the accusations and claimed he was arrested “out of the blue” as the protest heated up when riot police used pepper spray and batons to disperse the crowd. He was released after two nights in jail and is awaiting trial. He further claimed that other people arrested around the same time were charged with “exactly the same description of the alleged crime”.

During the protest on 16th December 2018 in Budapest that mobilised more than 15,000 people, protesters reportedly threw smoke grenades at police who responded with tear gas and arrests. Protesters marched more than six kilometres from the Parliament building to the Hungarian public television headquarters MTVA demanding that a group of opposition representatives be allowed to read their statements on television. Two Members of Parliament were thrown out of the offices of the state broadcaster MTVA for trying to broadcast a petition against the measures and the buildingʼs security were accused of using physical force against them.

On 5th January 2019, an estimated 10,000 protesters again braved freezing temperatures in the latest series of anti-government demonstrations in Budapest. At the event, László Kordás, head of the Hungarian Trade Union Confederation (MASZSZ), called for nationwide protests on 19 January 2019 should the government fail to meet the demands of the unions.

Sizable protests were also held in other Hungarian cities in early January 2019.

Pro-government public and commercial media have vilified protesters, portraying them as anarchists and "mercenaries of George Soros". The state-controlled media argued that the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros orchestrated the demonstrations.