Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The good, the bad, and the ugly - Media law in Hungary

Hungary has recently passed a new law regulating the media. I obviously cannot read all the international media, but apparently it is full of criticism/concern/outrage. Unfortunately the edge of that criticism is often taken away by the fact that the cited politician is a radical leftist minister of a small country, the leader of the European Socialists or perhaps a Budapest based news reporter who is known to be anti-Orbán irrespective of what he does, whether he is in or out of power. I haven't really heard of criticisms of Mr Orbán's Christian-Democrat pals - but then again, you do not expect that, really. So I took some time and read a whole bunch of news items, blog entries an the like on the new law to form my own opinion. My conclusion: most criticism is related to the fact that Mr Orbán's cabinet has an overwhelming majority in the Parliament and therefore in all related bodies, too.
The Good: The need for a new regulation is not the question. The media has changed completely over the past ten years and the existing regulation was ineffective. The Hungarian media, and by that we mostly mean television, especially the few main commercial channels has no self control, morals or even common sense. "What is not forbidden, is permitted." was the motto. The point is not just the quality of the programmes, but how aggressive the media became. Aggressive with loud advertisement to make sure that you do not miss them even if you go to the loo (otherwise jump to the remote to turn it down a bit), extensive advertising to kids (I thought this had been long forbidden, but apparently not or not sanctioned), a lot of violence, rude language, etc. etc., not to mention how media treated subjects. The media started to play god, creating stars from mud and killing people or firms when it pleased (only to acknowledge years later that the claims were unfounded, but by then the damage was done). There was a general agreement that this is bad, and the new law is not criticised for its objectives. But the execution.

The Bad: It may be true that the principal role of the press is to convey factual information, it has often been the government's main critics (not only this one's) speaking up agains corruption conspiracy and generally against people, organisations or ideas that stand beyond the law. When something was obviously fishy, but the media with its well-informed sources and illegally obtained evidence was often able to make a case for the public that possibly ended in court. Under the new law allegations can only be made on the basis of hard evidence, sources must be made public. I understand that this is to protect public figures from unfounded attacks, but the law goes too far.

The law also centralises public news. Until now the national news agency MTI, the national television MTV, the somewhat independent Duna TV and the radio each produced their own news. Admittedly, due to a series of cutbacks none of them provided e.g a good world coverage, but since many other actors in the media use their news, it will be hard to find "alternative" news.

The Ugly: Currently the media is monitored by a non-governmental organisations: if you have a club, or anything, you can register and then with some probability you can delegate a member in the various committees. So with some chance the decisions are signed by the representatives of philatelists, vegan activists, boy scouts, nudists and a lady from the needlework club from the corner. Needless to say such a group is neither professional, strong nor representative. By the new law, the job is taken over by politicians, elected by the Parliament. Since the government has a 2/3 majority, clearly pro-government members will dominate the Media Council (Médiatanács).At least now. As soon as it will be the Left's turn in power, they will provide the members - I am not sure if Mr Orbán has thought of this.

This control organisation will have extended rights to regulate the media including the right to fine those violating the regulations. The fines can be hefty. Disputed cases go to the courts. With a last-minute modification the dispute fines do not have to be paid until court ruling.

As a game theorist I like high fines. If we agree that the protection of the viewers/listeners/readers and the subjects of the media are important, we must keep these as an equilibrium behaviour. Since you cannot put a TV channel to jail, monetary fines are a good start and these should keep actors from deviating from the equilibrium path. There is some concern, that a pro-government authority will unjustly and excessively fine opposition media (so that they go bankrupt). Frankly, I find this the smaller of risks. The unjustly fined media can dispute the fine, not pay it, and a court procedure starts and ultimately it is not the Media Council -with its possible political bias- but the court that decides on the fine. My concern is for the pro-government media. After all, who checks on the Media Council whether they really check on all media?

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