The constitution and the law provide for freedom of speech and press. The broad powers of the media regulatory authority, however, together with an advertising market highly dependent on governmental contracts, created a climate conducive to self-censorship and political influence. The OSCE election observation mission noted media bias during the election campaign and increasing media concentration under government-linked ownership. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) continued to report a bias in news reporting by the public media. Mertek Standard Media Monitor reported increased pressure on the media by politics and business. Domestic and international media harshly criticized a newly introduced tax on advertisements.
Freedom of Speech: The criminal code includes provisions prohibiting the incitement of hatred and violence against members of certain groups. Any person who publicly incites hatred against any national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, or certain other designated groups of the population, may be prosecuted and convicted of a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. In addition any person who physically assaults or coerces someone because of his membership in a national, ethnic, racial, religious, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) group, or because of disability, may be convicted of a felony punishable by imprisonment for one to five years. NGOs continued to criticize courts for failing to convict persons for inciting hatred unless the crime was accompanied by a physical assault. NGOs also criticized the police for remaining reluctant to recognize bias behind crimes committed against Romani persons while strictly applying the law to cases where the victims were members of the ethnic majority, even though the intention of the law was to protect members of vulnerable minority groups.
A 2013 constitutional amendment and the revised civil code that became effective March 15 introduced hate speech provisions designed to “protect the dignity of the Hungarian nation or of any national, ethnic, racial, or religious community.” These constitutional provisions provide for judicial remedies for damage to individuals and their communities that result from hate speech. In 2013 the Venice Commission raised concern that the “dignity of the Hungarian nation” provision might be applied to curtail criticism of the country’s institutions and office holders, which would be incompatible with the standards of free speech limitations in a democratic society.
On September 17, the court of Budapest’s Second and Third districts ruled the burning of an Israeli flag at a public event did not constitute a crime but an expression of free speech. The court acquitted three perpetrators, including a former Jobbik politician, on a charge of hooliganism when setting fire to an Israeli flag in 2012 at a rally outside the Foreign Ministry. Jobbik distanced itself from the act at the time, stressing that the party did not take part in the demonstration. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement after the event condemning the burning of the flag and “the shameful, provocative and anti-minority speeches and behavior during the far-right demonstration.” The prosecutor appealed the verdict, and the case remained pending at the end of the year.
The law prohibits public denial of, doubt about, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes of the National Socialist (Nazi) and communist regimes, which is punishable by a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The HCLU continued to criticize the law for imposing serious restrictions on freedom of speech. On July 2, the Pest Central District Court sentenced a man to one year in prison (suspended sentence) for repeated public denial of the crimes of the Nazi regime. The convicted man displayed a sticker on his car reading “holokamu,” which is a combination of the Hungarian words for Holocaust and scam.
In February 2013 the Constitutional Court annulled the provision banning the use of symbols associated with the Nazi and communist dictatorships, but in April 2013 the parliament reintroduced the ban with more narrowly tailored restrictions. The law prohibits as a petty offense wearing, exhibiting, or promoting the swastika, the logo of the SS, the arrow cross, the hammer and sickle, or the five-pointed red star in public in a way that harms the human dignity or the memory of the victims of dictatorships. On September 23, the ECHR issued a ruling in the case of Attila Vajnai and two other individuals, who displayed a flag and leaflets depicting the red star at a public event in 2008, and concluded the subsequent police measures violated their right to freedom of expression. The ECHR made a total of five rulings in similar red star cases, all of which declared the ban a violation of the right of free expression.
Press Freedoms: By law the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), subordinate to parliament, is the central state administrative body for regulating the media. The authority of NMHH includes overseeing the operation of broadcast and media markets as well as “contributing to the execution of the government’s policy in the areas of frequency management and telecommunications.” Since March 2013 the president of the country appoints the NMHH’s president, upon the recommendation of the prime minister, for a nine-year term. The prime minister is obligated to obtain nomination proposals from professional organizations. When confirmed by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, the NMHH president also serves as the chairperson of the five-member Media Council, which supervises broadcast, cable, online, and print media content and spectrum usage. Neither the president of the NMHH nor members of the Media Council are eligible for re-election.
The public service broadcasting system merges the supervisory boards of all government-owned public service broadcasting entities (including news service Magyar Tavirati Iroda) into the Public Service Foundation and places their finances and assets under the control of the Media Services and Asset Management Fund. Human rights NGOs continued to challenge the media legislation for failing to secure media pluralism and the independence of public service media. NGOs remained highly critical of the NMHH for being a politically homogeneous body consisting of members nominated exclusively by the governing parties.
The Media Council continued to conduct weekly surveys to measure the proportion of media coverage of government and opposition politicians in broadcast news media, and publishes monthly reports on the data collected. According to a study released on July 28, government politicians remained “overrepresented” in coverage in both public and commercial media in June. The Media Council considers that each party should receive equal coverage; it does not factor in the proportion of parties’ representation in parliament or whether the coverage relates to their political or other activities.
On May 1, Freedom House released a report, Freedom of the Press 2014, which noted that conditions in the country, which were downgraded to partly free in 2011, remained largely unchanged in 2013. The report asserted there were “serious and persistent concerns that the extensive legislative and regulatory changes since 2010 have negatively affected media freedom.”
On June 3, the chief editor of the Origo.hu news website Gergo Saling was dismissed from his position, sparking harsh criticism from several domestic and international NGOs. On June 4 and June 9, approximately 1,000 to 2,000 persons demonstrated in front of the headquarters of the news website, claiming Saling’s dismissal was politically motivated and prompted by a series of stories critical of the government. The management of the website’s company, Origo Zrt., rejected allegations that political pressure was exerted on Origo.hu and claimed the personnel change was due to a long-planned decision about reorganizing content management. By June 9, 10 of the 12 journalists at Origo.hu’s news department quit in protest. On August 22, Magyar Telekom Nyrt., the owner of Origo Zrt., confirmed that, because of media reports concerning the change of Origo.hu’s editor in chief in June, it launched an internal investigation into the circumstances of Saling’s dismissal. In early November the chief executive officer of Origo Zrt., the business development deputy, and the innovation and business development director all quit the company without public explanation. Magyar Telekom Nyrt. reportedly completed the internal investigation into the Saling case but did not reveal its findings to the public and denied any connection between the investigation and the departure of the other executives of Origo Zrt.
On June 11, the parliament adopted a law introducing a tax on advertising. The tax is levied progressively on advertising revenues (not profits) received by radio and television channels, publishers, outdoor advertising firms, and websites, increasing to a top rate of 40 percent for revenues of more than 20 billion forint ($77 million). On November 18, parliament amended the law to increase this top rate to 50 percent, starting in 2015. More than 130 media outlets from the entire media spectrum protested the introduction of the tax. On June 5, television channels and websites nationwide broadcast blank screens and newspapers published blank pages in protest. The European Publishers Council criticized the tax for further eroding freedom of the press in the country, paralyzing the media sector, and having a devastating effect on independent news providers. On July 27, Neelie Kroes, the EU commissioner for the digital agenda, noted the advertising tax disproportionately affected one media company, RTL Klub, adding that it was one of the few channels in the country not promoting a purely pro-Fidesz line. The government “does not want a neutral, foreign-owned broadcaster in Hungary; it is using an unfair tax to wipe out democratic safeguards, and see off a perceived challenge to its power,” Kroes stated. On July 11, RTL Klub, the largest commercial television channel in the country owned by the RTL Group (a European broadcasting conglomerate), submitted a complaint to the European Commission that the advertising tax constituted illegal discrimination. Under the law and its several successive revisions, RTL Klub was reportedly the only company liable to pay the maximum 40 percent tax. The company argued that while its share of the domestic advertising market remained 13.5 percent, it was required to pay more than 50 percent of the entire tax, or 4.5 billion forint ($17.3 million). The case remained pending at years’ end.
On December 16, Nils Muiznieks, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, released a report on his July 1-4 visit to the country. The report voiced concerns regarding the “increasing threats to media pluralism” and governmental “attempts to curb media freedom in Hungary.” The report specifically criticized the composition of the Media Council, its extensive regulatory power regarding media content, its ability to impose severe sanctions (including high fines), the advertising tax, and restrictions on political advertising.
Violence and Harassment: In a legally binding ruling issued June 20, the Budapest Vicinity Tribunal sentenced Gyula Gyorgy Zagyva and Bela Incze for harassing two journalists of the weekly newspaper Hetek in 2010. The court assessed as an aggravating factor the fact that Zagyva was a member of parliament (Jobbik Party) and honorary chair of an NGO at the time of the incident. The court imposed a 300,000 forint ($1,200) fine on Zagyva and a 120,000 forint ($460) fine on Incze.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides content regulations and standards for journalistic rights, ethics, and norms applicable to all media, including news portals and online publications. It prohibits inciting hatred against nations, communities, ethnic, linguistic or other minorities, majority groups, churches, or religious groups. It provides for maintaining the confidentiality of sources with respect to criminal proceedings.
The Media Council may impose fines for violations of content regulation, including media services that violate prohibitions on inciting hatred or violating human dignity or regulations governing the protection of minors. The council may impose fines of to 200 million forint ($770,000), depending on the type of media service and audience size. It may also suspend the right to broadcast for up to a week. Defendants may appeal Media Council decisions but must appeal separately to prevent implementation while the parties litigate the substantive appeal. As of October 1, the Media Council issued 73 resolutions imposing fines totaling 56.9 million forint ($220,000) on 45 media outlets. Of those resolutions, 16 were challenged in court.
On January 28, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers released a report, Capturing Them Softly: Soft Censorship and State Capture in the Hungarian Media. The report concluded that “state capture of Hungarian media is unfolding slowly but surely, principally through the ‘soft censorship’ of financial incentives and influence that affect media outlets’ editorial content and economic viability.” According to the report, the Fidesz government “uses state advertising to bolster friendly media outlets, mainly those owned by leading business persons very close to the ruling party.” The report found “media outlets critical of government policies or supportive of opposition parties’ policies are denied almost all state advertising and other support, threatening their economic viability and seriously distorting the commercial market.”
On January 28, Mertek Standard Media Monitor released its press freedom index 2013, which indicated 53 percent of journalists working for print publications concealed facts to avoid unfavorable consequences and 27 percent of online media journalists resorted to self-censorship.
On November 6, Klubradio, a self-described liberal broadcaster, announced it filed a compensation lawsuit against the NMHH on the grounds the authority impeded Klubradio from using its frequencies, which caused the station considerable financial losses. Klubradio was awarded the 92.9 FM frequency in 2010, but the media authority did not conclude a contract with the media company thereafter. Klubradio engaged the government in litigation for more than three years for the frequency before the court finally ruled in April 2013 in favor of the station and, on February 13, the Media Council signed the contract. Since 2011 Klubradio gradually lost all the 12 broadcast frequencies previously used outside of the capital city of Budapest as the Media Council declined to renew its previous local contracts, citing various legal rationales. On June 6, the Debrecen-based local Lokomotiv Radio station ceased broadcasting; this was the last local frequency owned by Klubradio, leaving it able to broadcast only in the capital.
Libel Laws/National Security: Individuals may be sued for libel for their published statements or for publicizing libelous statements made by others. Plaintiffs may litigate both in civil and criminal courts. Journalists reporting on an event may be judged criminally responsible for making or reporting false statements.
Since November 2013 the criminal code has included a criminal libel provision which makes illegal the creation and/or distribution of a video or audio recording with false content with the purpose of violating someone’s dignity. According to the law, producing such false media is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison, and distributing it is a misdemeanor punishable by up to two years. Distributing the false recording “widely” or causing “significant injury” to a person’s “interests” is classified as a felony and punishable by imprisonment of up to three years.
On March 3, in response to the July 2013 petition of the ombudsman, the Constitutional Court struck down the part of the new civil code that restricted the ability of press to criticize public figures in cases involving “reasonable public interest.” The court concluded the annulled provision violated the rights to freedom of speech and press and stated that free debate is a primary constitutional interest. Effective March 15, the civil code stipulates that exercise of the fundamental right to free debate about public affairs may affect the reputations of public figures to the extent necessary and proportionate without violating protections of human dignity.
In 2012 an online news portal, Delmagyar.hu, published an account of a car accident involving Janos Lazar, the state secretary for the prime minister’s office at the time, which attracted numerous comments from readers, some reportedly critical of Lazar’s personal character. In response Lazar initiated a civil libel suit against the publisher of the news outlet, Lapcom Zrt., and a criminal case against the author of the insulting comment. In July 2013 the civil suit was settled out of court, with the parties reaching an agreement under which Lapcom Zrt. acknowledged some comments “violated the state secretary’s human dignity” and agreed to pay 500,000 forint ($1,900) in damages to Lazar. On April 22, the Szeged District Court convicted three persons on libel charges submitted by the Investigative Prosecutor’s Office of Kecskemet in connection with the insulting comments but released them on parole.
On May 27, the Constitutional Court dismissed a complaint of the Association of Hungarian Content Providers and concluded that website operators (including blogs) are responsible for the content of posted comments, regardless of whether they moderate comments or not, whether they actively remove the harmful content or not, and whether the commenter is identified or not. The HCLU criticized the court decision, calling it a threat to free internet commentary. The HCLU argued that placing such unqualified responsibility on content providers could have a chilling effect and curb freedom of speech by incentivizing website owners to disable public comments on websites. On May 29, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, stated “the decision of the Constitutional Court to place unconditional responsibility on content providers for all comments posted on their websites by third parties will make it very likely that they will limit or block any possibility of online comments” and that “this ruling can significantly curb free debate” in the country.
On September 23, the Constitutional Court ruled the ban on publishing the image of police officers or prison guards constituted a violation of press freedom. Under the ruling, pictures taken of police officers may be made public without the consent of the police officer in question, so long as they are not harmful to the officer’s human dignity and publication is not self-serving but concerns contemporary events, news, or public information about the exercise of the executive power that is of public interest.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. NGOs reported, however, suspected political influence imposed on online news portals (see section 2.a.).
According to the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 72 percent of the population used the internet in 2013. Freedom House maintained the country’s internet and digital media rating as “free” in 2013.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were reports of governmental interference in academic freedom.
Beginning in January 2013, the management of public elementary and secondary schools, including budget and finance and the hiring and monitoring of teachers, was transferred from municipalities to a central governmental body, the Klebelsberg Institution Maintenance Center (KLIK). Since 2013 the Minister of Human Capacities appoints school principals. In 2013 the government introduced a new mandatory National Core Curriculum in all elementary and secondary schools, including public, private, and religious schools, in the first, fifth, and ninth grades; in September the government included the second, sixth, and tenth grades. Schools are required to rely on the government curriculum and may deviate from it for no more than 10 percent of teaching time. With the approval of the Minister of Human Capacities, public and private schools may use of a different framework, which can also be applied in other schools identified by the requesting school. Ultimately 82 schools used alternative framework curricula.
On January 1, a new law entered into force on public school textbooks, which transferred responsibility for the development, publishing, and distribution of schoolbooks exclusively to the government. Under the new system, public schools may only choose from two types of textbooks identified by KLIK, instead of the dozen different publications previously available on the free textbook market. Simultaneously, the government began drafting new textbooks for every grade, which have been optionally available for schools for the first and fifth grades since September. Professional organizations criticized the new system for failing to engage expert groups in preliminary consultations, the low quality of the new textbooks, and the restriction of the freedom of teachers to choose their preferred textbooks.
On May 27, based on the ombudsman’s 2013 petition, the Constitutional Court declared that the 2011 law establishing the public Hungarian Art Academy (MMA) was not in full harmony with the constitutional requirements of neutrality and pluralism that provide for freedom of artistic expression. By law founding members of the MMA came exclusively from one NGO that was also responsible for defining the conditions for new membership. The court refrained from annulling the relevant provision, arguing the new body had been operational for years, and under the principle of “legal certainty” it would be too late to annul the provision. On February 4, the parliament amended the law on the MMA, creating a new status of “nonacademic membership” with the aim of expanding and diversifying membership of the public body. By the end of October, 237 new “nonacademic” members were accepted by the MMA, which had an additional 248 normal academic members and 45 correspondent members. On July 4, the parliament amended the act on higher education and empowered the MMA (together with the Hungarian Science Academy and the Hungarian Olympic Committee) to recommend candidates for new university professors to the president of the country, who appoints all professors.