* 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 (Reuters) - 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 expression.
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 authority.
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 things happen.”
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 Nagy Navarro.
“(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 parked nearby.
“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)