What’s Up with the New Civil Code and Press Photographs?

A new story dominating English-language coverage of Hungary is about the new Civil Code, which came into effect on March 15th and is reportedly “killing the press photo in Hungary.”

The story has run in prominent outlets like The Guardian but also in forums like this one, saying

“Ever since Hungary’s current government was elected back in 2010, the country has seen (…) a slow but noticeable drift away from the common values of the European Union. The country’s latest step towards becoming politically and socially isolated was the creation of a new law that requires photographers to ask permission of everyone in a photograph – before taking the picture. If this law is taken literally, it will make not only amateur street photography impossible, but also professional photojournalism.”

Sounds terrible, right? But is it accurate? Let’s see what Hungarian photographers have to say.

In “About the Civil Code Hysteria,” an author from a blog called Fotosarok (or, Photo Corner) emphasizes how he otherwise does not like the current government but also writes, “In my opinion this is nothing else, but pre-election hysteria, which one should not fall for, but many do it anyways.” The author explains: “Nothing new happened. There is nothing new in the new Civil Code. The legal practice for a decade in Hungary is that people can only be photographed with their consent. But, while for publication you need (in most cases) a consent, for taking a picture a so-called consent by act/behavior,” meaning, for example waving or posing for the photographer or simply seeing that he’s taking a photo and not opposing it.

“The hysteria causes more damage than the law itself,” writes Attila Völgyi, a well known Hungarian photographer on his blog, explaining that the Internet hysteria hardens photographers’ lives by spreading false information to everyday people, including of course possible photo subjects. Mr. Völgyi is a contributer to many Hungarian newspapers and international agencies online and offline, including Reuters and Europress.

“On March 15th, a new Civil Code was accepted and this is all the truth from the article [everyone is sharing]”, writes Völgyi. “What happened is what two laws regulated formerly is now put into one law (…), so regulations on public photographs are now in the same law. I’m not saying I like it, but for sure this is not news and the legal practice on taking photographs in public places has not changed at all,” he adds.

And there’s more.

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Ebbets: Lunch atop a Skyscraper distorted in one of the articles. Source: 444.hu

Levente Hernádi, press photographer and picture editor at Index, a widely read, opposition-leaning news site comes to a similar conclusion on his blog. “Whatever happens on March 14th,” writes Hernádi, “the practice of how pictures get published in the news does not change.”

Hernádi explains that according to the new legislation, which is the same as the old one, consent from the subject is not needed in advance. Publication is what requires consent, but such consent could be given by behavior. Also, the rule doesn’t apply so rigorously to public figures and public events, and consent is not needed if the person is not recognizable. As Hernádi points out, the real aim of the regulation is, for example, to make it illegal to take a picture of someone unknown and use it for online dating. The regulation is unchanged, only restructured. The court practice remains.

Do the photographers above like this practice? The answer is clearly no. All three of them call for a more liberal regulation, but in all fairness, they state clearly that the situation, which, in their opinion could be more lenient, is not an invention of the new Civil Code. Part of it comes from existing regulation and part of it is a codifying of court practice.

Should the legislation continue to protect citizen’s rights or should it be more liberal than before? Now, that’s a debate worth having.

The international media coverage gives the impression that the new Civil Code is cracking down on the freedom of the press. But that’s clearly not the case. Does the new Civil Code kill the press photo? The rules are no different in practice than they were before.

Is the legislation outdated or inadequate? That’s a good question for the freedom of press versus citizens’ rights debate. An informed debate could help develop a consensus, but election campaign hysteria does not.

Statement on aljazeera.com editorial policies

Imad Musa, Head of Online at Al Jazeera English:

A recent Twitter conversation initiated by one of our respected contributors, Sarah Kendzior, has led to some confusion about our editorial processes at aljazeera.com.

Sarah is one of our long-time contributors, and she has recently suggested that we have censored her because one of her pieces had not been published a few days after submission. However, her piece was scheduled to run this week, and this was communicated to her by our Opinion editor before this series of tweets.

It is industry standard for writers to be asked to pitch their ideas before submitting their articles to avoid overlap. I’m still unclear as to how this could be misinterpreted.

This is not a case of censorship, media restrictions or changes in editorial standards.

Aljazeera.com - and especially its Opinion section - will always be the home of brave and thought-provoking debate and analysis on the issues that matter most.

Child's Play

Kids enjoy a good story. Good guys against bad guys in a struggle to protect something pure and true from bad things.

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The bad guys depicted in a recent clip aired by KIKA, the channel for kids over at the German Public Service Broadcaster, are – guess what? – none other than the Government of Hungary. Ungarn appears as the problem in the middle of a map of the hallowed European Union. Depicted in a rudimentary animation with a simple voiceover, the neat little fairytale describes a government elected by the people that then turns into the boogie man cracking down on free media and hushing the courts.

I like to think I have a sense of humor just as good as the next guy, but this isn’t funny. Contrary to what the little German tikes learn from the excellent, oh-so-very respectful civics and culture lesson, no media has been silenced in Hungary (Klubradio has not had even a moment off the air and was just granted a seven-year contract by the Media Council) and the Constitutional Court has the same authority as before to rule on any piece of legislation.

The scowling animations and wagging fingers advise us that the Hungarian political leadership does not respect EU regulations. In fact, though infringement proceedings against EU member states are not unusual, Hungary has never gone against a ruling of one of the relevant EU institutions, like the Commission or the Court.

It’s growing tiresome to have to respond to insulting distortions like this. It would be one thing if this video had appeared on an independent blog, but we’re talking about German public broadcasting here. A program for children! That’s shameful.

Some media reported that I took offense at the video. They’re correct. I did and rightly so. I take exception to it not only as an international spokesman but as a Hungarian and a father. We’ve let our colleagues in Berlin know of our displeasure.

Al Jazeera condemns Egypt media intimidation

Al Jazeera has spoken out against the intimidation of journalists in Cairo.

The comments come after:

  • Dozens of their journalists rounded up and detained by the authorities
  • Their offices raided
  • APTN ordered by the military to deny their live feed to Al Jazeera
  • Threatening leaflets distributed outside Al Jazeera offices
  • Al Jazeera Arabic’s correspondent hounded out of a government press conference by attendees who applauded the spokesman at the end of the event

Other international media organisations have also reported harassment.

An Al Jazeera spokesman said:

Read More

Azerbaijan locks up journalists as it prepares for “election”

I wrote this for Index on Censorship after a monitoring mission in Baku in the run-up to the presidential elections. First published 2 October, 2013.

In the run-up to next week’s presidential elections, Index on Censorship travelled to Baku to meet journalists, human rights defenders, political activists, and citizens.

The tone was set the day we arrived in Azerbaijan, 17 September 2013. Journalist Parviz Hashimli, was arrested and detained by officers of the Ministry of National Security after a raid on the office of newspaper Bizim Yol.

Hashimli is an influential journalist as the editor of Moderator.az website and chair of the Center for Protection of Political and Civil Rights. He was accused of drugs smuggling and the illegal possession of weapons. According to the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) in Baku, “it is unclear exactly what prompted the arrest of Hashimli and raid on BizimYol newspaper. However, some experts believe it was linked to a series of leaks reporting on developments in the state machinery, published shortly before his arrest on www.moderator.az news source.”

Human rights activists that we met believe that Hashimli’s arrest is yet another attempt to intimidate the press in the run-up to the October election. This week, the editor of Tolyshi Sado newspaper, Hilal Mamedov, was sentenced to five years in prison.

At least eight journalists are currently imprisoned in retaliation for their reporting on sensitive issues. This is the backdrop to Azerbaijan’s election next week, an election that is being fought in one of the least free countries on earth.

Journalists are not the only group affected by arrests under fabricated charges. Youth movements have been particularly targeted since March 2013. Index met with relatives of some of the seven NIDA members arrested last March and April for “drug possession” or “suspicion of inciting violence”. NIDA is a youth movement calling for more democracy in Azerbaijan. The seven members arrested were particularly active on social media and known for their criticism of the authorities.

On 19 September, we met former Index on Censorship award winner Rashid Hajili, who is a lawyer and chair of the Media Rights Institute. “Since 2003, the situation has gradually worsened,” says Hajili. While the human rights situation is deteriorating on the eve of the presidential elections, Hajili sees the situation as the result of a decade-long “shift toward authoritarianism”. Not only have the authorities of the country ignored their international commitments – such as decriminalising defamation – but they have adopted legislation imposing new restrictions on fundamental freedoms.

In May, Azerbaijan’s parliament adopted regressive legislation extending criminal defamation provisions to online content. Azerbaijanis now face potential fines of up to AZN 1,000 (approximately USD $1,280), or prison sentences of up to three years for items they post online, including on Facebook. The chilling effect is so severe that individuals refrain from even “liking a friend’s controversial status”, says a young Azeri. “We are aware that social media are monitored,” she adds.

As the Aliyev regime tightens the screws, space for free expression is shrinking and prospects for free and fair elections grow slimmer. Three years after receiving Index’s Law and Campaigning Award, Rashid Hajili is still busy fighting repression against the right to freedom of expression in the country. The number of his clients prosecuted for being critical to the government keeps increasing. “There is very limited space for free expression,” says Hajili. “Many independent or critical voices go online, to online newspapers and to social media”. But the online space is not safe. While many in the civil society or international diplomacy have denounced criminal prosecutions for online publications, and intimidation of journalists, Azerbaijan routinely ignores criticism of its human rights record by international bodies.

‘Public Service’ Programming? Details about Klubrádió

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Let’s turn to the subject of Klubrádió for a moment. It has garnered a lot of attention over the last year and has been in the news again because of a recent court decision. At the center of the story is a Budapest-based, opposition-oriented news and talk radio station that goes by the name Klubrádió. The controversy revolves essentially around issues of media regulation, particularly frequency allocation but, unfortunately, has grown into a story about media freedom. It has been in the news recently because the representatives of the station appealed in court a decision of the Media Council of the state regulatory body, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority, and won.

Before I turn to the story’s background, I would underline a few points. The story, according to much of the coverage we’ve seen, is supposedly about government efforts to control the media, to silence opponents. That’s a little hyperbolic, it seems to me.

Specifics of the story are important. The issue here is about a license for a radio frequency, one that was originally granted for public service radio programming, and the public tender process. In Hungary, as in many other countries, frequencies are allocated through a competitive bidding process to win an operating license, which is typically granted for a definite period. Klubrádió became a story because its operating license, which was first granted in 1998 for public service programming, was due to expire in February 2011. It had to apply for the renewal of the license as part of the normal frequency allocation process not because it was being taken away. That’s one of the first points that the coverage sometimes overlooks. What’s more, Klubrádió lost the tender competition because the media authority judged its application inferior on a rather important point of objective criteria: price. The price they offered for the frequency license was much lower. Just how low-ball was the Klubrádió price offer? Take a look at this graph from Wikipedia:

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Klubrádió appealed in the courts, challenging questions about the tender procedure, and the courts, thus far, have ruled in favor of Klubrádió. What we have here is an independent broadcast media regulatory authority and independent courts. The institutions of a democratic order are working. Today, Klubrádió continues to broadcast.

But there’s more than meets the eye with Klubrádió. Its background is interesting.

Klubrádió likes to describe itself as “public-service programming.” For the Hungarian speaker, that’s a peculiar way to describe the kind of programming heard on the station. Most reasonable people would consider “public service” programming as respecting a degree of non-partisanship and, well, maintaining at least some sort of balance. Here’s where the Wikipedia background on Klubrádió becomes really interesting. I’d strongly recommend a quick read.

The Hungarian Auto Club created Klubrádió when it was granted a broadcast license in December 1998 based on a tender to offer public service programming focused on a traffic radio format, airing 24 hours a day. Makes sense. The Hungarian Auto Club reports on traffic and road conditions, and that’s what it did until the fall of 2001, prior to the spring 2002 elections. By the way, because it was public service programming, it paid a lower price for the license. Then, as we read in Wikipedia, Klubrádió changed:

“After some two years on the air, the leadership of the Hungarian Auto Club decided to sell the company for undisclosed reasons. HAC raised the equity of Klubrádió by 145 million forints and immediately sold 100 million forints worth of shares to Monográf Rt. in October 2001, not long before the 2002 elections in Hungary. Monográf Rt. was founded in 2001 September, one month prior to gaining controlling stake in Klubrádió. The headquarters of Monográf was in the same building as the publisher of the left-wing weekly 168 ora. Monográf, whose ownership at that time had close ties to the SZDSZ [the Free Democrats who have been the junior coalition partner of the Socialists], acquired Klubrádió from the Hungarian Auto Club, even though other bidders offered more. In the second half of 2002, the consortium gained 100% ownership in Klubrádió.”

After the acquisition, operating under the same license, the programming changed significantly, the traffic news that was the reason for the awarding in 1998 of a license based on the price accorded to public-service programming disappeared. The programming became completely different from the one presented and approved in the 1998 tender. What happened to the programming after the sale in 2001? The programming became decidedly more political and partisan, featuring call-in programs hosted by political figures – Ferenc Gyurcsány served as a program host – and its imbalance was the subject of public protests already in 2007, long before the current government.

It’s fine to have programming of a politically partisan nature, but then it’s commercial radio, not public service, and its license should go for a fee appropriate to commercial radio.

So where do things stand today? Here’s a quick rundown.

With the expiration of Klubrádió’s operating license, the Media Council announced an open tender in mid-2011 with transparent terms and conditions. While the tender submitted by Klubrádió gained maximum points in the subjective scores, its objective scores (ratio of music content in the station programming and the price they offered for the license) fell far below the other offers. The Media Council does not have the leeway to alter the weight given to objective criteria, and ignoring the scores on objective criteria (particularly price offers) of the other tenders would have compromised the fairness of the process.

Klubrádió went to court claiming that the winning bid contained formal mistakes. They won the case. As a result the Media Council decided to withdraw the whole tender on the grounds that, based on this ruling, all the applicants committed formal mistakes. Klubrádió went to court again claiming that the Media Council shouldn’t have voided all the applications as a result of the first court decision, only the winning application. They won again. We don’t have a final outcome yet, but what we could see here is that the Media Council will have to grant a license for the use of a public resource to one of the lower bidders, Klubrádió or another. Not exactly a good deal for the Hungarian taxpayer.

We’ll have to wait for the outcome. In the meantime, the story has been a media favorite. That’s fine, except it’s nigh impossible to find a treatment of the subject that does not paint it as the Hungarian state trying to control the media. The Associated Press, for example, starts its report as follows: “An opposition radio station in Hungary won a court ruling Wednesday in its bid for a broadcast license, but that was still no guarantee it could survive government efforts to control the media.”

The AP report fails to mention, however, that Klubrádió has not seen a moment of radio silence since the expiration of its broadcasting license nor does it mention that the station failed to offer a competitive price for the frequency. Some would argue that if any pressure was involved, that came from Klubrádió’s friends and partners. That’s not the only detail that the AP, and others, fail to mention. The reports – nearly all of them from what I could see – fail to mention Klubrádió’s background, how it started as a road and traffic public service radio and then changed fundamentally and contrary to the programming for which its license was granted. Why are those details missing from the media accounts?

The intent of the Media Council is to create a clear and fair playing field in radio broadcasting. The stakeholders of a shrinking broadcasting market, public service and commercial, would like to see a fair playing field. That’s what the new media law and the new media authorities aim to do: establish a stable and fair media market. This law and the authority are still in their inception, to be sure. Cases like Klubrádió help us understand the challenges and the refinements that need to be made to the media regulations.

But let’s be clear. Is there a problem with media freedom and media pluralism in Hungary? Absolutely not. Is there a problem with opposition radio in Hungary? No. But radio programming that contains political and other opinion belongs to the category of commercial radio, not public service, and should be prepared to pay accordingly for a license.

Rule of Law: The Klubradio Saga Comes to an End

The Klubradio saga apparently finally came to end a few days ago. Some have used the story to claim problems with media freedom in Hungary, but there’s more to this story than meets the eye. I’ve written on the background in a previous post. Let me summarize some of the details:

With the expiration of Klubradio’s operating license, the Media Council announced an open tender in mid-2011 with transparent terms and conditions. While the tender submitted by Klubradio gained maximum points in the subjective scores, its objective scores (ratio of music content in the station programming and the price they offered for the license) fell far below the other offers. The Media Council does not have the leeway to alter the weight given to objective criteria, and ignoring the scores on objective criteria (particularly price offers) of the other tenders would have compromised the fairness of the process.

Klubradio went to court claiming that the winning bid contained formal mistakes. They won the case. As a result the Media Council decided to withdraw the whole tender on the grounds that, based on this ruling, all the applicants committed formal mistakes. Klubradio went to court again claiming that the Media Council shouldn’t have voided all the applications as a result of the first court decision, only the winning application. They won again. What we could see here is that the Media Council will have to grant a license for the use of a public resource to one of the lower bidders, Klubradio or another. Not exactly a good deal for the Hungarian taxpayer.

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Klubradio poster on the streets on Hungary. Source:Klubradio.hu

Last week, the Media Council announced that, abiding by the Court ruling, they will sign a contract with Klubradio for the 95.3 Mhz frequency, regardless of the fact that Klubradio was one of the lowest bidders for the frequency. (If you are really interested in the details, here’s a 38-page long description with all the technical details)

We have been hearing two major points of criticism regarding the case. Most critics say the Media Council wanted to silence Klubradio, and so the Council delayed the agreement and signing of the contracts. Facts show otherwise: the Media Council wanted to equally consider the interest of all the applicants. Klubradio, as you may recall, was among the lowest bidders for the license. There were several others, including three with higher bids: Autoradio, Juventus, and Click Radio; and two with similar bids: Radio 1 and Rumba Radio. Remember, the first court ruling only said the highest bidder should have been revoked due to minor formal mistakes. In a case where multiple parties show reasonable interest, a lengthier procedure is required and during that lengthy procedure, Klubradio did not experience one second of silence. And unless they want otherwise, they will not in the near future either, as they are being offered a seven-year license as a result of the ruling.

The second point of criticism claims that Klubradio should be entitled to a free frequency like other similar news and talk radio stations. It’s a vicious move, they say, for the Media Council to turn Klubradio’s frequency into a commercial one. Inforadio – a similar news and talk radio in Budapest – went through the same thing. They migrated from 95.8 (which has been turned into a commercial frequency) to 88.1 (which is a public-service frequency run under a free license). Klubradio did not apply for the tender on 88.1, or for any other public frequency since the Media Council began operating.

So, looks like the saga is nearly over and Klubradio will receive its license for 95.3. Those critics who predicted that Klubradio would be “silenced by state authority” proved a bit too hasty with their conclusions. While the legal details were being ironed out, there was not a moment of radio silence.  

Here’s What One Hungarian Media Executive Has to Say About Independence and Government Pressure

Featured on the cover of this week’s Kreativ Magazin is an interview with Dirk Gergens, the chief executive of RTL Magyarország. RTL Klub is a popular television channel in Hungary. It’s news programs regularly capture the largest audience share, and it has a reputation for being critical of the current government.

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Source: Google/Wikipedia

At one point, the interviewer asked him about government pressure. Here’s the interviewer’s lead-in and Mr. Gergens’ response:

Q: Several have said about you that after the change of government [in 2010] you had to confront a completely different situation. Until then RTL Klub was like a “state within a state.” But now it has numerous debates with politicians on the right. They say that [adviser to the prime minister] Árpád Habony once called you because he was not pleased about certain news coverage critical of the government that appeared on RTL II.

A: Árpád Habony has never called me. Our news programs are independent. I heard the same thing back when the Socialists and Free Democrats were in government. Then a Socialist prime minister called me because he did not like RTL’s attitude. A Fidesz politician has never called me.

Hungary: a Leader in Internet Freedom

Here’s an often-overlooked fact about Hungary: we are a role model in the area of Internet freedom. According to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2012, their annual survey of Internet freedom around the world, Hungary comes in at number 5, edging out Italy and even the United Kingdom. It’s a testimony to the broad access and unfettered freedom that Hungarians enjoy online. Last Friday in Vienna, I had the chance to speak at a conference organized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on this very topic.

I enjoyed presenting our results, not only as a civil servant responsible for international communication but especially as a long-time blogger. I began publishing online as a political analyst back in 2002 and have written several Hungarian-language blogs and now this one in English. So, when I say that the Internet has become a core ingredient to a well-informed society and pluralism, I don’t say so lightly. As Prime Minister Orbán noted in a speech at the European Parliament regarding the question of Internet freedom in Hungary, the governing party won the 2010 elections over the Internet. We know it is important to maintain it as an open source of information, and that’s why Hungary supported without reservation the closing Joint Declarations of the OSCE conference.

Here is a video of my remarks at the conference:

Source: OSCE, via Official Youtube Channel of the Government of Hungary

Getting it Wrong: Problems with the Human Rights Watch Report

On January 18, 2013, Lydia Gall, the Eastern Europe and the Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch published a rather unfortunate article on one of CNN’s blogs, entitled “Hungary’s Alarming Climate of Intolerance.” The piece included a number of factual errors and misinterpretations, so I published an open letter in response to the author. When Human Rights Watch released its 2012 Annual Report late last month, I was concerned that it would include some of these factual errors and misinterpretations. Unfortunately, it does.

Human rights organizations play a vital role, and I have had a good deal of contact with some of them over the last few months, including the Anti-Defamation League, Freedom House and others. While I do not always agree with them, I have a lot of respect for the work they do. That’s why it’s particularly disappointing to see an organization of the stature of Human Rights Watch trip up, as it does in the Hungary section of the Human Rights Watch World Report 2012, on factual errors, outdated information, and non-issues. Let me give you some examples.

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Human Rights Watch Logo, Source: hrw.org

HRW World Report says that Hungary’s new Fundamental Law and cardinal laws “weaken human rights protection, strip the constitutional court of some powers, undermine judicial independence and include forced retirement of 300 judges.” That’s incorrect. The report did not describe what they mean by the relative expression of weakening human rights, but the new Fundamental Law does state nationalities are part of the Hungarian political community and constituent members of the State, and it undertakes the protection of their languages and cultures. Second, the Constitutional Court’s powers have been redefined, not taken away. On one hand, it is true that the Court is now not allowed to examine any issue in which national referendum cannot be held to ensure the voters have the highest rights to make decisions. On the other hand, the Constitutional Court now has the right to examine laws from a fundamental right’s point of view, and was given the tool of preliminary constitutional review, a power that it has already used to return legislation to the parliament. Finally, there is no law on the “retirement of judges.” There was a law that established a retirement age for all public office holders. However, concerning judges, the Constitutional Court overturned the law and now the Hungarian government is working in close cooperation with the European Union to come up with a workable solution to the issue.

“In January,” the report continues, “348 religious groups lost their status as ‘churches’ under the new Constitution.” In fact, the Fundamental Law does not specify any churches at all. The law was adopted in 2011. The number of religious groups receiving official, state recognition, according to this law, is on par with other European countries and the law’s limiting of the number is intended to cut down on what had been widespread abuse of the financial privileges attached to being recognized as a church. The list of registered churches is “open and expandable” and nothing prevents a group of people from continuing to call their community a church and engage in worship services. Such a community may apply for registration as a religious association, remain eligible for certain tax benefits, own property and provide social services. Thus, the law imposes no limitation on the freedom of association or the freedom of religion.

“[The Fundamental Law] limits the right to vote,” according to HRW, “for persons with mental disabilities and defines family in a way that excludes LGBT people.” The Fundamental Law does not limit voting rights of the mentally disabled. That’s simply false. Furthermore, the Fundamental Law does not refer to people according to their sexual orientation. The Law describes family as the basis of the nation’s future existence and marriage as a ‘union between man and woman’. The Fundamental Law protects each individual’s basic rights to ensure that every member of a religious, ethnic, sexual or other minority group should live with dignity and should not be discriminated against, and it does not address the issue of LGBT couples. In Hungary, LGBT couples can be officially recognized as a “civil partnership,” which is similar to 22 of the 27 EU member states.

“Despite criticism from the [Council of Europe], the European Commission, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) representative on media freedom, the Hungarian government failed to sufficiently amend problematic media laws.” – goes the next statement. This is inaccurate, and you can read more about the Council of Europe’s evaluation of Hungary in my previous post. Also, journalists do not face excessive or extraordinary fines.

While that’s already quite a list of errors, that’s only the first four paragraphs of the report. And it doesn’t get much better.

It is not the job of a civil servant like me to pass judgment on NGOs and how they do their work. But it is my duty to provide information and my obligation to set the record straight when I see mistakes. Let me again extend my offer to help internationals reporting on Hungary, to provide solid, fact-based information on the government’s work. This way, organization’s like HRW may produce more accurate reporting and not publish analysis with statements that a simple Wikipedia search could refute. Avoiding the typical Hungary-bashing and taking a more objective approach, HRW could, I’m sure provide us important ideas and feedback. I hope to hear from them next time.

How Is the Internet in Hungary Any Less Free This Year?

The 2013 edition of Freedom on the Net, an assessment of internet and digital media published by Freedom House, ranked internet in Hungary as “free,” but to the astonishment of many, it also downgraded Hungary’s score. Why?

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From Freedom on the Net 2013, source: freedomhouse.org

Let’s begin with the bottom line. The Freedom House methodology uses a scale from 0 to 100, the lower the score, the greater the freedom. The study ranks Hungary as free, with a score of 23, which is equal to Italy, three points behind France and one point better than the United Kingdom. The Internet in Hungary is, like the rest of Europe, “free.”

But the headlines concerning Hungary, of course, were all about the slightly lower score this year, four points lower than last year’s 19. The study evaluates countries in three areas: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. It docked Hungary by two points in the category of limits on content and two points for violations of user rights.

That left me scratching my head. What on earth happened in Hungary over the last year that caused a decline in internet freedom, specifically greater limits on content and violations of user rights?

I’m still wondering because the study does not provide a single example of limits on content. Not a single one. The section begins with the following:

“The government does not currently mandate any type of technical filtering of websites, blogs, or text messages, though online content is somewhat limited as a result of self-censorship, lack of revenue for independent media outlets online, and the dominance of the state-run media outlet.”

Really?

First of all, a lack of revenue for online, independent media outlets is not an internet freedom issue, certainly not in Hungary. Period.

Secondly, this claim that there’s self-censorship in the Hungarian media is a favorite of those who claim that Hungary’s media is less than free. This, in a country where reporting by a popular newsweekly, HVG and its online version hvg.hu, played a major role in causing the resignation of the president of the republic over allegations of plagiarism, a case that the report itself mentions. Self-censorship? The report fails to provide any real examples.

Thirdly, “online content is somewhat limited as a result of,” according to the report, “the dominance of the state-run media outlet.” Seriously?

Check the Alexa scores for websites in Hungary. The fifth most popular website in the country (after google.co.hu, facebook.com, google.com and youtube.com) is index.hu, a privately owned news portal that is hardly pro-government. The seventh and twelfth most popular sites are blog.hu and blogspot.hu, hugely diverse blog communities where one can read any flavor of content. Origo.hu, another popular news source, is also in the top ten. HVG’s website ranks 19th. While these news sources also use material from the state’s news agency, MTI, they are hardly dependent on it. You have to scroll quite a ways down to find a government media outlet. That’s not exactly what I’d call dominant.

The study’s argument that there are limits on content rests on the claim that revisions to the criminal code “could allow the government to block websites if host providers fail to respond to takedown notices.” The criminal code, though, states clearly when a takedown order may be issued: to fight child pornography, crimes against the state, and terror attacks. And has it happened?

By the way, such provisions are quite common to other western democracies. Heard the recent story about the FBI’s crackdown on the website Silkroad?

The arguments that there have been violations of user rights are similarly flimsy. It presents once again the false argument that the Fourth Amendment to the constitution annulled previous decisions of the Constitutional Court, “causing uncertainty as to how previous legal protections, particularly regarding free speech, will be interpreted.” As I wrote in a previous post, “Misconceptions and Facts About the Fourth Amendment,” that’s false: “The Constitutional Court remains free in its interpretation. It can rule in a specific case just as it did before the new Fundamental Law. But because the Fundamental Law is effectively the new constitution, the Constitutional Court would have to base its decision on the Fundamental Law, not merely refer to the old constitution.”

It also mentions the case of two blog owners being sued for defamation based on comments that appeared on their blog. But the fact is they took it to court and the courts in the first and second instance found the content to be defamatory.

Finally, the study also mentions the case of a physical attack against a reporter from index.hu, whose nose was broken by an extreme-right protester during an anti-government rally. That’s terrible, to be sure. But it was an isolated incident, not part of some kind of growing trend, so how is it an example of a violation of user rights?

Am I making too much out of this? Afterall, the study ranks Hungary as free right along side other European democracies. The problem, though, is that the poorer score and narrative create the perception that internet freedom in Hungary is somehow declining when in fact what we find is a burgeoning online community, rich in content and diversity. Any objective consumer of Hungarian-language online news and information could easily come to the conclusion that in fact it’s more dynamic and freer than ever before.

Stepping Up Against Websites that Publish Offensive Speech

Earlier this week, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law bringing new regulations to websites, including the possibility of blocking sites that publish illegal content, namely hate speech, pedophile pornography and such. Critics have already begun to stoke fears with suggestions that this will limit freedom of speech, so don’t be surprised to see stories about the government supposedly “banning” websites. But before anyone goes chaining themselves to the railings, there are a few things everyone should know about the law.

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Source: blog.bt-store.com

Firstly and most importantly, the law (which is not yet in its final form) is enforced through intergovernmental cooperation and not by Hungary alone blocking Internet access to websites. That may be the practice in other countries — which, unlike Hungary, rank much lower than the top 5 in Internet Freedom — but it’s not the practice here. Secondly, a Hungarian court defines whether a website abuses the freedom of speech in Hungary. If the court finds that it does, the Hungarian authorities contact their counterparts in the country where the hosting servers are located in order to have the abusive website shut down.

The aim here is to allow Hungary to join forces with other countries against illegal websites as the number of Internet crimes continues to grow, affecting children in particular. While we value freedom of speech, the IT revolution allows perpetrators to get away with crimes easily by simply moving servers to another country. It may be easy to hide behind proxy servers, but if the initiative makes cyber criminals’ life a little harder and a number of citizens (especially underage) will be protected, that’s already a positive result.

Now, Hungarian authorities can shut down abusive websites by court ruling – but only if those are hosted in the country. Again, according to Freedom House, Hungary’s law is one of the least limiting regulations in the world. If a website today targets the Hungarian audience and is abusive, but hosted outside the borders, the tools of authorities are limited. Here’s one example:

One website in particular is online and accessible now and publishes in Hungarian language some of the most despicable, racist, hate-filled content. It violates our laws on hate speech, protection of personal data, has released addresses and phone numbers of people they consider enemies, and encouraged neo-Nazis to harass people. This site – which I will deliberately not name here, but it is easy to find – spews its content in Hungarian but because it is hosted in the United States and the creators conceal their own identity (though many believe the website is closely linked to the extreme right party, Jobbik), law enforcement cannot go after the one’s responsible for the site. They cannot do that in spite of calls for action in the United States Congress that such websites be shut down.

Freedom of speech is a value we aim to protect, but cyber crimes must be fought effectively. That’s the motivation of Hungary’s new law promoting international cooperation against Internet crimes.

 

Hungarian Media Council Fines Pro-Government Newspaper for Article by Zsolt Bayer

Earlier this week, acting on a complaint filed by a civic organization called the Otherness Foundation (or Másság Alapítvány), the Media Council of Hungary fined Magyar Hirlap, the daily newspaper that published a highly controversial opinion piece about Roma written by the journalist Zsolt Bayer.

Back in January, reacting to a story about a lethal stabbing that occurred in Hungary, Bayer authored an opinion piece about certain members of the Roma community, calling this certain group “animals” and “unfit for coexistence.” Today, Bayer is an independent journalist, but he is also one of the very early members of the ruling party, Fidesz. Despite the fact that he does not hold any position in the party or government, many commentators at the time made much of his relationship to Fidesz and his friendship with Prime Minister Orbán. (For further details, here is a fair summary of the incident in English.)

Deputy Prime Minister, Tibor Navracsics, representing the government and party co-founder, Tamás Deutsch, representing Fidesz, were quick to condemn Bayer’s article. Later, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán revealed in an interview (in German) that he personally spoke with Bayer at the time about the opinion piece, which resulted in Bayer trying to back away from the article in a subsequent column.

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The National Media and Infocommunications Authority

In response to the claim by the civic organization, the Media Authority investigated the issue and found that the Bayer article violated article 17 of the Act CIV of 2010 on the Freedom of the Press and the Fundamental Rules of Media Content, which says that “media content may not incite hatred against any nation, community, national, ethnic, linguistic or other minority or majority as well as any church or religious group.” The result: the newspaper was fined 250,000 forint (about 1,100 US dollars). The newspaper can appeal the decision in court.

Two years ago, when Hungarian media regulation reforms were especially in the spotlight, many critics argued that the Media Council will abuse content rules to punish opposition media and create a chilling effect in the media. Fact is, this is the first time under the new law that the Media Council has ever fined any printed media for violation of content rules and this was in response to a claim made by a civic organization. The Media Council, as we see, intervenes only rarely, in extraordinary situations and, in this case, found against a newspaper typically regarded as pro-government for the writing of an independent journalist associated, as critics were fond of pointing out at the time, with the ruling party.

Many international media outlets covered the Bayer controversy back in January but as of today, few of them have picked up this story.

The Internet in Hungary is Free, says Freedom House

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Freedom House’s

Freedom on the Net is Freedom House’s series of comprehensive studies of Internet freedom around the globe. Over 50 researchers contributed to the project by examining laws and practices relevant to the Internet, testing the accessibility of select websites, and interviewing a wide range of sources.

In this year’s edition, released last week, Hungary’s overall “freedom on the net” score is 19, where 0 equals most free and 100 equals least free. For comparison, the United Kingdom got a score of 25, Italy ranked 23, whereas the US got 12, Germany 15, Georgia 30, and Russia, which is graded as only “partly free,” took 52.

“Technical filtering and censorship of websites, blogs, or text messages does not exist in Hungary, nor are there methods to prevent users from accessing any content,” the report states. In the “limits on content” analysis, on the same 0 to 100 scale, Hungary scored a 6, the United Kingdom received a mark of 8, Italy 7, the US 1, Germany 3, Georgia 10 and Russia 18.

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