Hungary passes law boosting government control over media

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary’s parliament passed legislation on Tuesday to tighten government control over news outlets that media watchdogs say is arbitrary and ill-defined.

The new National Media and Communications Authority (NMHH), dominated by people loyal to the ruling Fidesz party, will oversee all public news production and its powers will include levying big fines on private media that violate the law.

Some 1,500 people protested near parliament on Monday night against the media law.

Since Fidesz won a two-thirds parliament majority in April, it has put its own people into key posts at public institutions such as the financial regulator and the state audit office, as well as the NMHH.

The media law, seen as the latest piece of that power grab, received 256 votes with 87 against and no abstentions in parliament.

Critics have called the law heavy-handed, saying it does not clearly lay out what news outlets have to do to comply.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it severely restricted print and online media, which runs counter to OSCE standards.

“Regulating print media can curb media freedom and free public debate, which are indispensable elements of democracies,” OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic wrote in a report.

“Regulating online media is not only technologically impossible but it exerts a chilling, self-censoring effect on free expression.”

Besides regulatory changes, all public service news production, in television, radio and the national news agency MTI, will be merged and its contents disseminated for free.

The government said the new law was long overdue to bring outdated legislation up to date with changing technology and content. It said the law respected press freedom and was in line with those in fellow European Union countries.