Long Time No See: The Venice Commission Returns to Look at Hungary’s Media Laws

Back in 2010, the Hungarian Parliament passed new media laws. The new regulations replaced laws that dated back to 1986 — written under communist rule — and some revisions in 1995. Needless to say, the media landscape has changed a lot since then, so it was high time for some freshening up.

The media sector is of course a sacred cow for the media, so it was no surprise that the new laws quickly became the subject of domestic debate and soon attracted international attention. Critics, some of whom had not even read the legal texts, quickly jumped to the conclusion that the new laws would threaten Hungary’s free press. And so we still hear claims that the media is no longer free in Hungary.

After some careful examination of the criticism and some minor revisions and clarifications to the laws, much of the criticism went away. The Venice Commission, the body most actively involved in the issue, acknowledged “significant progress” on the laws. Cooler heads had finally prevailed and the Hungarian media laws had passed the test domestically and internationally.

Or so it seemed. Last month, members of the Venice Commission returned to Hungary. Socialist Party politicians Ágnes Kunhalmi and Gergely Bárandi announced that they had taken part in discussions with the Venice Commission about Hungary’s media laws. The Commission itself has not publicly commented on its most recent visit.

On the occasion of the visit, a Budapest think tank published a review of the regulations and how they apply. The Center for Fundamental Rights argues that the old laws were outdated and could not longer work in a media environment dominated by digital. And they also made a few other points we rarely hear.

The law allows a regulatory body to impose fines, something that provoked heated criticism. Fines, however, were part of the previous legislation. The problem was that the amounts of the fines had not changed since 1996.

Considering inflation and the volume of today’s media business, the old fines packed very little punch as a deterrent to a media company from turning out offensive or defamatory material. Furthermore, when the new laws first passed, there was a misconception that blogs would be regulated under the Media Law, but these were never part of the legislation. More specifically, private blogs, company or private websites and social media content were never part of the law. And, a point we never hear, the new Media Law emphasizes the protection of sources in journalism.

Much of the critical fuss we’ve endured over the last few years comes from a bias that the media should not be regulated at all. It’s because many have, as one media law expert put it recently, a “libertarian conception of free speech nowadays.”

“Media is not the same as individual speech,” said Thomas Gibbons, a professor of Law at the University of Manchester, speaking at an event on media freedom and regulation hosted by the National Media and Infocommunications Authority of Hungary (NMHH). “State intervention is required in the new media. The justification of the regulation of free speech is because of the harm that speech can cause.”

When reasonable people can agree that some regulation of the media sector is necessary, especially in this digital era, and we take the time to look at the details of Hungary’s media laws, we see that there’s really nothing very unusual in the content.

So we are curious to hear what the Venice Commission will have to say this time.

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