Media Council issues first fine on a print daily

By Judit Barta

Hungary’s Media Council on May 8 handed down its first sanction against a print and online publication with a HUF 250,000 (EUR 862) fine for hate speech against right-wing daily Magyar Hírlap for publishing Zsolt Bayer’s January 5 opinion piece, in which he called Roma “animals” who “shouldn’t be allowed to exist.”

As previously reported by this blog, Bayer, a founding member of Hungary’s governing Fidesz party, published an article entitled “Who should not be” that contained severe anti-Roma language. In his article, Bayer wrote: “These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. … These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved – immediately and regardless of the method.”

The article drew harsh criticism both at home and internationally. At the request of a group of Hungarian NGOs, five international companies boycotted the newspaper.

The Media Council, which has previously issued content-related sanctions against broadcast media, explained that it launched its first procedure against a print and online outlet because Magyar Hírlap is not a member of any of the co-regulating bodies, which would normally address content-related issues like hate speech.

The Media Council ruled that Bayer’s article violated the Article 17 of the 2010 Press Freedom Act (Act CIV of 2010)—the so-called “media constitution”—which prohibits the publication of hate speech and discriminatory content. In determining the sanction, the Council considered the impact of an online version of the print article. “The weight of the rights infringement and the length of the accessibility of the online article justifies the imposing of a fine,” the Media Council ruled.

While the decision addressed a widely criticized instance of hate speech, ombudsman Máte Szabó questioned the legal ability of the Media Council to impose this sanction. Szabó, who has previously turned to the Constitutional Court with questions involving the media laws, told left-wing daily Nepszava that the sanction against Magyar Hírlap is not well-grounded because the Press Freedom Act does not specify the conditions of legal violations, or specify what exactly qualifies as discriminatory content. Szabó also argued that the law does not create objective criteria for determining the degree of the sanction.

Article 17 of the Press Freedom Act is among the more contested provisions of the 2010 media laws. Numerous legal experts, including those at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ), say the provision is broad and over-reaching, which could allow for arbitrary enforcement by regulatory authorities. Article 17 prohibits content that incites hatred against “any nation, community, national, ethnic, linguistic or other minority or any majority as well as any church or religious group.” According to a January 2011 report by TASZ, the article’s prohibition on media content that offends “minorities” and “any majority” is an “unclear compulsory provision” that could work to limit any critical coverage of all groups, hence undermining the media’s essential watchdog role.

According to a blog post in hvg.hu, the Media Council’s judgment against a daily like Magyar Hírlap sets a precedent that might now be used to sanction other print and online publications.

Magyar Hírlap is owned by Gábor Széles, a top Fidesz-party donor in 2010. Széles also owns right-wing TV station Echo TV.