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Hungary: Sovereignty Protection Bill poses new threat to independent media

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Joint statement from media freedom groups sounds alarm


The International Press Institute (IPI) today joins partners in the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) consortium to warn the European Union of the frightening impact of the Sovereignty Protection Bill proposed by Hungary’s ruling party will have an impact on what remains of the country’s struggling independent media community. .

Our organizations point out that even though the media are not directly named in the text of the bill, the intentionally vague language and broad scope of the proposed law would effectively open the door to state-sponsored pressure on media that receive foreign funding and produce journalism critical of the government.

The sovereignty protection bill is therefore the latest part of a decade-long campaign by Prime Minister Victor Orbán’s government to harass critics and remove democratic checks and balances. This was achieved in part through measures that restrict, punish and stigmatize critical journalism and NGOs deemed hostile to national interests.

The bill, submitted to Parliament on November 21, would create a new office headed by someone directly appointed by the prime minister for a six-year term. Its main task would be to map and report on perceived threats to Hungary’s national sovereignty and identify agencies or individuals suspected of serving malign foreign interests. Any foreign financing of party electoral campaigns would be criminalized.

This new office would have broad investigative powers to demand documents, financial records or data from any organization or body operating in Hungary, including civil society groups, media organizations or journalists’ associations. It would publish public reports on the allegedly negative impact of these bodies on public discourse or Hungarian politics, with a focus on election periods. Organizations deemed to be infringing on national sovereignty could be unofficially labeled as such by the body in its reports.

Although media outlets and their activities are not directly mentioned in the text, the bill’s vague language means it could easily apply to media organizations and individual journalists. Under current parameters, any foreign-funded media outlet could be accused of undermining Hungarian sovereignty by spreading “disinformation” and carrying out “disinformation” activities.aimed at influencing the democratic debate” or “aimed at influencing the will of the voters”. National media freedom groups registered in Hungary could be included in the scope of the law, while international media freedom organizations working in the country could also be stigmatized in the reports of the Proposed Sovereignty Protection Office. Although it will be responsible for preparing recommendations, the body will have no legal power to impose sanctions.

Government figures have indicated that the aim of the law is only to prevent domestic political actors from accepting foreign funds. However, when the bill was first announced, a Fidesz politician said other targets included so-called “dollar media” and “Soros media” – derogatory terms used to qualify media receiving money from the United States or the European Union.

The bill is therefore part of a stigmatization campaign since the 2022 general elections, and beyond, against media that receive foreign subsidies and funding. Last year, an organization close to the government published a report examining the funding structure of several major independent media outlets, suggesting they served foreign interests. If this new body becomes operational, it would hang like a sword over independent media and NGOs and represent an institutionalized escalation of pressure on the acceptance of foreign funds.

Over the past decade, as many reports As we have documented, the Fidesz government deliberately disrupted the media market in order to weaken the finances of independent media. This includes the abuse of public advertising, pressure on private advertisers, launching smear campaigns against independent media and other tactics that drive away readers, using public funds to finance otherwise pro-government media. economically unviable and the selective application of competition law. Many independent media outlets did not survive this onslaught, either closing or being sold to pro-government owners. The remaining independent media outlets have been forced to change their business models in favor of subscription systems and subsidies from foreign donors in order to survive and continue their monitoring work. This bill and attacks on foreign funding must therefore be seen as the latest attempt to undermine the business models and financial viability of the independent press.

The dire conditions for media freedom and independent journalism in Hungary have been built by the Fidesz government over the past decade, under the eyes of the European Union. For too long, nothing has been done to challenge the anti-pluralist consolidation of a pro-government media bubble and the slow eradication of bastions of professional journalism through regulatory abuses and politically motivated media company buyouts. machined. Although the draft European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) represents a principled effort to safeguard pluralism and media freedom in member states, its fate remains uncertain.

As the debate continues in the Hungarian parliament, the EU must not waver in its opposition to this bill. If the package of amendments is finally adopted and the Constitution and the Penal Code are amended by Parliament with a two-thirds majority of Fidesz, plans should already be in place for the European Commission to launch an infringement procedure against Hungary and is challenging the law in European courts. . Even if the bill is never adopted, the text and the proposed measures will have a deterrent effect in the signal they send. We together call on the Hungarian government to abandon the bill and to refrain from any form of pressure on the media and NGOs.

In the coming weeks, our MFRR consortium partner, ARTICLE 19 Europe, will prepare an in-depth legal assessment of the law’s alignment with European law and international media freedom standards. This will detail the seriousness of the threat posed by the Sovereignty Protection Bill to the media and civil society organizations. Our organizations remain committed to protecting what remains of independent and pluralist journalism in Hungary.

Sign:

International Press Institute (IPI)

ARTICLE 19Europe

Balkan Free Media Initiative (BFMI)

European Center for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Unlimited Free Press (FPU)

OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

Analysis: One year after the elections, media freedom in Hungary remains stifled

This statement was coordinated by the IPI as part of the Rapid response to media freedom (MFRR), a European-wide mechanism that tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU member states, candidate countries and Ukraine. The project is co-financed by the European Commission.

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