* Editors say govt controls news content at public media
* One recent case prompted hunger strike
* Public broadcaster is independent - TV spokesman
By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST, Dec 22 Camped outside Hungary's
public broadcaster, a small group of television editors is on
hunger strike to protest what they say is widespread news
manipulation by the government.
The broadcaster and the government deny the accusation. But
the controversy has drawn fresh criticism of centre-right Prime
Minister Viktor Orban, already under fire for promoting a law
critics said curbed the independence of the media and freedom of
The media law, backed by the government's two-thirds
majority in parliament, required all broadcasters to provide
balanced coverage of news and to register with a state
The legislation sparked outcry in Europe and was modified
after the EU Commission threatened to take legal action.
But current and former editors at the public broadcaster
told Reuters the government remained able to manipulate news
content, and did so routinely.
"We'd get clear instructions about expectations of any given
story, what it must suggest," said Norbert Fekete, a former
editor at the evening news programmes, who was fired in July.
"A recurring theme was the pressure to cast a negative light
on previous Socialist governments. In this regime only good
What touched off the hunger strike was an alleged attempt to
shut out of any news programme a former chief judge, Zoltan
Lomnici, who had been appointed by the previous Socialist
government. Editors were ordered not to interview or show him on
screen, to the point of blurring his image on the screen,
editors at the public broadcaster told the local media.
"Since the democratic transition, all governments have tried
to influence news coverage," said television union leader Balazs
"(But) these people go beyond all kinds of limits. They
distort, falsify information. This Lomnici case is just the tip
of the iceberg," said Navarro, who started the hunger strike on
Dec. 10 with a handful of colleagues, sitting outside the
studios, wrapped in blankets and drinking tea, their trailer
"The government will in the future, as it always has,
refrain from influencing the public media, or any media outlet,
as that would violate constitutional values it fully respects,"
a government spokesman said on Thursday. "The government rejects
all allegations of such influencing."
A spokesman with the Media Service Support and Asset
Management Fund (MTVA), which provides content for public
service news channels, said editors were independent.
"The current system is more, not less, independent from
politics than the previous one, where political appointees
oversaw media outlets directly," spokesman Laszlo Szabo said.
"The fact that there are mistakes, idiotic mistakes even,
does not have to mean that any politician would sneak into the
evening news desk and rewrite the news with his own pen."
One media expert told Reuters the new media law was to
blame, as it put a council of political appointees in charge of
enforcing media regulation, but they turn a blind eye when the
government meddles with news.
"The current law allows the two-thirds governing majority
exclusive control of the media," Peter Molnar, a professor of
media at the Central European University in Budapest, said.
"That makes independence inherently impossible."
Changes passed to the media legislation narrow the scope of
the law so that it no longer prescribes balanced news coverage
for on-demand services such as Internet sites or blogs.
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)