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EU threatens Hungary with legal action over media law

BRUSSELS/BUDAPEST (Reuters) - The European Union executive has given Hungary two weeks to show its new media law complies with EU rules or face legal action, a European Commission spokesman said on Friday.

Hungarians, with stickers on their mouth, take part in a demonstration against the government's new media law, in front of the parliament building in Budapest January 14, 2011. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo/Files

Hungary, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, drew sharp rebukes from France, Britain and Germany after enacting the law in late 2010 because of concerns over respect for media freedom and EU regulation on broadcasting.

The criticism by fellow EU governments and the public outcry in Hungary have raised concern for Budapest’s ability to build a consensus in the 27-member bloc at a time when difficult economic reforms are needed. Hungary will oversee many EU policy discussions until the middle of the year.

“I confirm Hungary has two weeks to respond, then we reserve the right to launch infringement proceedings,” Jonathan Todd told Reuters. He said EU telecoms chief Neelie Kroes had set out the two week deadline in a letter sent on Friday.

The commission, which serves as the EU executive body, is concerned whether the new rules limit freedom of expression in Hungary by requiring all broadcasters to provide balanced coverage of news and to register with a state authority.

Another concern is that the law appears to apply to media companies established outside of Hungary, which would contravene EU regulations that say broadcasters are subject to rules in their country of origin only.

Under pressure from European diplomats, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said he would be willing to amend the legislation if the EU executive obliged him to do so.

“At this stage the commission seeks clarification on certain points,” government spokeswoman Anna Nagy said. “We will try to clarify (those points) in the shortest possible time ... our reply will be ready in sooner than two weeks.”

Nagy said the government would disclose more details later.

If Hungary fails to convince the commission that the rules comply, the executive would launch a legal procedure that could lead to a court case against Hungary and fines.

Hungary says the law had to be changed because the old legislation was ineffective, with increasingly virulent tabloid television channels and newspapers acting with impunity.

The United States last week joined in the growing criticism when Philip Gordon, U.S. assistant secretary of state, called on Hungary to take the international debate over its law seriously.

Orban’s party has rejected criticism from abroad, saying the new law conforms to European norms.

Reporting by Justyna Pawlak, additional reporting by Sandor Peto in Budapest; Editing by Bate Felix and Alison Williams