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Will Hungary’s media law be enforced fairly?

Hungary’s notorious new media law, enacted by the ruling rightwing Fidesz party, took effect July 1 and already the fears of its opponents are being realized.

As Human Rights Watch reported in January:

The new law creates a media control body, with members appointed by the ruling party in parliament. All media outlets will be required to register with the body to operate lawfully.

The panel will be able to impose fines of up to €700,000 (approximately $900,000) on media outlets for “imbalanced news coverage,” material it considers “insulting” to a particular group or “the majority” or it deems to violate “public morality.” “Gross” violations can result in denial of registration. The law also removes legal protection against the disclosure of journalists’ sources, with wide grounds for the media authority to order disclosure.

On July 1, Eva S. Balogh wrote at Hungarian Spectrum:

It seems… that Annamária Szalai and her crew in the Media Council were busy getting ready for the day because this morning we heard that Népszava, a left-liberal organ, received a stern letter from Jenő Bodonovich, who seems to be the commissioner in charge of media and telecommunication. From the letter, which is available online, one learns that an unnamed person denounced Népszava because of a comment that appeared in the Internet edition of the paper. The article that inspired the comments was “Pál Schmitt: Ferenc Mádl was a man of firm convictions.” It appeared on June 8 on the occasion of the former president’s sudden death.

The man who wasn’t brave enough to reveal his name wrote straight to Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary in charge of communications in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, on June 13. He was offended by one of the comments written in connection with the article. He neglected to be specific. Because there were about twenty comments that accompanied the Internet edition of the article we can only guess which one offended our brave man.

Why he didn’t write to the Media Council? Most likely because he was familiar with the name of the fiery undersecretary who defended the media law with such gusto at every international forum ever since January when the international outcry began. Zoltán Kovács found this denunciation of Népszava so terribly important and urgent that he immediately sent the letter over to the “proper authority”–that is, the Media Council. One wishes that government officials were always so prompt in answering letters and acting upon them.

The indignant citizen found “the comments to be profane [kegyeletsértők].” He claimed that he wrote a letter to Népszava complaining but received no answer. (Népszava claims that they know nothing about any such letter.)

It took the Office of the Commissioner of the Media and Telecommunications a little longer to write a letter to Péter Németh, editor-in-chief, but it arrived in time to make a big splash on July 1, the D-Day of the Hungarian Media Law. In the letter Németh was informed that the commissioner is beginning an investigation because the comments to the article “are insulting concerning the persons of Ferenc Mádl and President Pál Schmitt.” So, the charge is no longer profanity but simply insulting language.

So, let’s see what might have offended our man who complained to Zoltán Kovács. Well, someone called Schmitt a clown; someone else thought that Mádl was a man of conviction as opposed to Schmitt. Someone actually took pity on Schmitt and thought that to use the occasion of Mádl’s death to badmouth Schmitt is not fair. Someone remarked that to be a man of conviction in comparison to Schmitt is not much to say. Interestingly enough, the only tasteless remark among the twenty or so comments was one about Viktor Orbán. Someone said that he will rejoice when “the fellow from Alcsút will join him [Mádl, I presume] in the other world.”

All these comments are simply opinions. Someone might think that Schmitt is a clown or not a man of conviction, but surely even the Hungarian media law couldn’t find this opinion punishable. As for “the fellow from Alcsút,” it is a tasteless reference. But, interestingly, the letter makes no mention of that particular comment. In fact, I found these comments quite mild in comparison to the usual fare on the Internet.

The reaction to this letter to Népszava was total panic in the media community. The first was Index, the popular Internet site, which announced that there will be no more opportunity from here on to write comments. The editors admitted that this move is not a very nice or brave act but “because of the changed legal environment” they cannot do anything else. They cannot hire three people to monitor the comments 24/7; instead, “we have to play safe.”

On January 25, 2011, the pro-Fidesz newspaper Magyar Hirlap published an article about a piece by Karl Pfeifer in an Austrian newspaper denouncing the honors bestowed by Fidesz politicians on the antisemitic Zsolt Bayer, a journalist with close ties to Fidesz. The article attracted hundreds of readers’ comments, some of them foully antisemitic. Although Magyar Hirlap routinely moderates readers’ comments, these comments remain on its website.

On July 3 Karl Pfeifer wrote to Jenö Bodonovich:

I have learned from the Austrian press that you started legal proceedings by the Media Authority against Népszava for an alleged online commentary posted on June 8th 2011 according to which action against illegal contents can be taken retroactively.

As I understand illegal content includes hate speech, … attacks on human dignity or human rights, as well as free of any social exclusion of any social exclusion of a person or group.

I would like to use the opportunity to point out the commentaries published in Magyar Hirlap in connection with the article “An attack on Zsolt Bayer and Fidesz” on January 25, 2011.

As a Journalist and Austrian citizen I ask for your opinion and want to know how you are going to proceed in this case. The public outside the borders of Hungary is interested to find out how the new media law is going to be implemented against anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic hate speech.

Here are the comments that Karl Pfeifer included with his letter:

2011-02-05 03:17:25

Te aljas rohadek.Senkit nem erdekel hogy a selejtek mit mutogatnak Magyarorszagra.Te rpohadt zsido tetu.Te termeszetesnek tartod,hogy a ciganyok magyarokat gyilkolnak hetente ezt megertem,hiszen egy rohadt tetves idegen betolakodott zsido vagy,tehat ellenseg.—

[You disgraceful piece of rot. No one cares how a piece of garbage smears Hungary. You rotten Jewish lice. I understand that you think it is natural that the Gypsies are killing Hungarians every week, since you are a rotten, lice-infested foreign pushy Jew, an enemy.]

http://www.magyarhirlap.hu/hirek.html?r_id=5&hir_id=216684&hsz=3

2011-02-01 16:07:33

Latom hogy undorodsz a verszivo parazita zsido tetvektol es orulnel ha a ezek a zsido tetvek haza takarodnanak

[I see that you are disgusted by the bloodsucking parasitical Jewish lice and you are glad that these lice-ridden Jews go home]

http://www.magyarhirlap.hu/hirek.html?r_id=5&hir_id=216684&hsz=5

2011-01-26 07:00:00

A tetű így köszöni meg hogy Magyarország bújtatta a náci ausztria elől! Ennyit ezekről a szappan (állításuk szerint) szökevényekről!

[This is the way this louse gives his thanks to Hungary for protecting him from the Nazi Austrians. So much about this soap- (that’s what they say) deserter!]

http://www.magyarhirlap.hu/hirek.html?r_id=5&hir_id=216684&hsz=11

2011-01-25 17:36:49

Nekünk a legrosszabb stratégia, ha tiltakozunk az antiszemitizmus vádja ellen. Hivatalosan persze tagadni kell tessék-lássék módra, amíg az US-rael össze nem omlik, de a felszín alatt sokkal inkább rá kell játszani.

Igen, antiszemiták vagyunk!

Igen, a magyarok utálják a zsidókat, mint a rühöt! Terjedjen csak el antiszemita hírünk minél jobban! És akkor az itteni magyargyűlölő zsidók annál inkább eltakarodnak innen ill. az izraeli zsidó megszállók jóval kevesebb számban telepednek át hozzánk.

Mert ezek csak viszályt, pusztítást hoznak, miközben a nyakunkön élősködve elszívják az életerőnket.

[For us it is the worst strategy to protest against the accusation of anti-Semitism. Officially we must pretend to protest as long as “US-rael” does not collapse, but under the surface we must rather play on it.

Yes, we are anti-Semites!

Yes, the Hungarians hate the Jews like scabs! Our anti-Semitic fame should spread the more! And then the local Jews who hate the Magyars will leave the quicker and the Israeli Jewish occupiers will settle here in far fewer numbers. Because they bring only conflict and ruin, while sucking our blood like parasites and draining our vigour.]

http://www.magyarhirlap.hu/hirek.html?r_id=5&hir_id=216684&hsz=17

2011-01-25 15:21:54

A bosszú népének jellegzetes példánya, kemence szökevény.

[A characteristic example of the people of vengeance, a [gas] oven deserter.]

http://www.magyarhirlap.hu/hirek.html?r_id=5&hir_id=216684&hsz=19

2011-01-25 14:06:45

Karl Pfeiffer ugyebár zsidó. Tehát jót tőle ne várjon senki. Ismerjük őket, tudjuk, mit köszönhetünk nekik. Az első világháború óta hazánkra csak a szégyent, pusztulást hozták. Akit érdekel ennek igaz, hiteles története, olvassa el Tormay Cecil Bujdosó könyv című megrázóan felkavaró remekművét. Ott mindenre választ kap.

[Karl Pfeifer is a Jew. Therefore nobody should hope for anything good. We know his sort, we know what we owe them. Since the First World War they’ve brought only shame and destruction on our homeland.]

http://www.magyarhirlap.hu/hirek.html?r_id=5&hir_id=216684&hsz=21

Harry’s Place readers may want to write to Mr. Jenö Bodonovich at [email protected] and ask him if he plans to investigate Magyar Hirlap for hosting the above comments since last winter on its website.