Hungary media, church laws unconstitutional -court

Mon Dec 19, 2011 1:44pm EST

* Scraps parts of media law for excessive limitations

* Says church law passed in breach of parliamentary law

* Some changes to law on judiciary infringe human rights

By Gergely Szakacs and Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Hungary's constitutional court scrapped several provisions of its new media legislation on Monday, citing interference with press freedoms, in a case that marred Budapest's European Union presidency in the first half of this year.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban's first 20 months in office have been marked by what critics see as the elimination or weakening of key checks and balances on his power.

The court, which Orban's Fidesz party has stripped of nearly all its jurisdiction over budgetary matters, deemed four points of the new law on print and online media unconstitutional, and it also invalidated a new law dealing with churches.

"The Constitutional Court is doing its job ... We will seek constitutional solutions that will settle the issues in a reassuring manner," said government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs.

A row over the media legislation overshadowed Hungary's EU presidency, during which Budapest was forced to change key provisions of the law to avoid legal action by the European Commission. .

In its decision, the court removed the media authority's right to scrutinise print and online content against aspects of human rights, dignity and privacy.

It also deleted a passage limiting the protection of sources of stories serving the public interest. It mandated new rules to specify that journalists may only be forced to divulge their sources under a procedure strictly controlled by the courts.

The Constitutional Court also declared void a new law governing churches after legislators rewrote key parts of it just before a final vote, leaving no time for due debate.

The court said this move violated legal guarantees of a democratic exercise of power.

Fidesz parliamentary group leader Janos Lazar had launched a move last week to lift restrictions on last-minute amendments to accelerate legislation in certain cases.

The main opposition Socialist party and the small liberal LMP responded by warning that, if approved, the changes would marginalise the opposition during parliamentary debate.

The Constitutional Court also scrapped several changes to the law on the judiciary, including one that would have allowed prosecutors in some high profile cases to hand-pick a particular court for a trial.

The court said this would infringe both Hungary's constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights by impairing the right to an impartial court and violating the principle of a fair trial.