Monday, December 9, 2013

Hungary cracks down on Free Press

By: Hal-David Roberts
Produced & Edited by: Holly Moody

Living in a country where speaking out against the government, its laws, political leaders or saying something that officials simply do not agree with leads to being severely ridiculed, being outcaste or even thrown in prison is becoming reality for citizens in the central European nation of Hungary.

The government appears to be seizing more power and control over its media systems through various changes to its penal codes as well as through the creation of new laws.
Hungarians protest control over Media in Budapest.

The situation in Hungary differs greatly from that of a western nation like the United States where the constitution protects the ‘freedom of the press’ thus prohibiting the government from interfering in the distribution of information and opinion.

 In Hungary, citizens, professors, and journalists fear for the future ‘freedom’ of their press because of new and severe restrictions that target those who speak out against the government and its policies as well as those who publish defamatory writing, audio and video. This is not surprising to former blogger and Budapest resident, Viktor Balko.

“It’s kind of worrisome, I used to write some pieces about the government on my blog, said Balko. But you have to actually be careful what you say about the government, about the new laws, about the leaders – you have to worry about your own opinion.”

Changes to Criminal Code raises worries about Enforcement

 The government remains quiet about the changes. There is reason to worry according to Balko who pointed out the recent changes made to Hungary’s criminal code. The changes appear to be ongoing, “It happens little by little, no one can really talk about it,” added Balko.

Nora Isaac, the Hungarian adviser to Dunja Mijatović, the representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said, “Media freedom in Hungary can use the attention.”

On November 5, 2013 the Hungarian Parliament made changes to their Criminal Code regarding the creation and distribution of video or sound recordings that could be defamatory. The penalties include possible prison sentences up to three years. The longest prison sentences depend on how wide the receiving audience is, which targets the media. In a statement from Mijatović, she calls these new implementations, “excessive.”

Balint Szlanko is a Budapest-based journalist who covers armed conflicts. Szlanko has covered wars in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. He is also the author of three books and has done work for The Economist, The Associated Press and USA Today

 “The main problems are that government indirectly controls most of the rightwing press plus public television and radio, Szlanko said.  “We are seeing a lot of different forms of informal pressures on the independent media so I think they’re not nearly as effective as they could be.” 

European lawmakers protest Hugary's media censorship laws
(Via: HUpress)
The government’s indirect control began in January 2011, an act of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz political party. They are in control of the new Media Council, run by five members of its party, each with nine-year terms. They impose fines on journalists. They also handle licensing similar to the Federal Communications Commission in the United States.

The McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland has a European campus located in Budapest. Professor Robert Smyth teaches journalism there. Smyth teaches courses like Introduction to Journalism and Advanced News Reporting. He raised a case that shows how freedom of opinion in Hungary is at stake under Fidesz control.

 Ákos Kertész, an 80-year-old Jewish Hungarian writer, published a letter in a Hungarian-American publication, Amerika Népszava in 2011. In the letter, he complained about some Hungarians being ‘genetically servile’ and how they refuse to stand up against Prime Minister and Fidesz President, Viktor Orbán’s dictator-like rule.

 This letter led to him being physically assaulted in the streets, harassed and threatened. He also received hatred from both the Hungarian Parliament and the Budapest City Council. In November 2013, he was granted political asylum in Canada after fleeing Hungary. He was first granted refugee status in Canada in 2012.

Since the government has gained control over certain aspects of the media, Smyth said, “Journalists have operated under the fear of being fined for offensive articles and the potential fines would put many smaller news organizations out of business.”

 However, Smyth also said the fines have not been imposed anywhere near the anticipated extent.

Even after the Kertész incident and a press with less freedom, Smyth said the way he teaches his students will not change.

 Thomas Pernecker, a 22-year-old Hungarian-American student studying Journalism at Ohio University summed up the situation in Hungary, where both of his parents were born and raised, as “shameful.” 

 “It’s wild to think about a place that I visit each year; the people there, actually have to be scared to speak out against their government," said Pernecker.

 Twenty-eight year old, Viktor Balko hopes that things will get better, “But with each passing day, it becomes more difficult for someone to take a stand.”

 The Hungarian government remains silent about the subject of press freedom. Calls and e-mails to Hungary’s Ministry of Public Administration and Justice have not been returned.  

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