Neelie KROES
Vice-President of the European Commission

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Media freedom remains under threat in Hungary

A free and plural media is the foundation of a free society, and a safeguard of democratic tradition. The new "advertising tax" in Hungary shows it is still very much under threat.

This new tax was introduced in Parliament in just a few days, without significant debate or consultation. Ostensibly an "advertising tax" to raise revenue, in fact it disproportionately affects one single media company, RTL. Indeed, according to their own calculations, they are the only single company that would face the highest rate of the tax; imposing significant losses and putting in jeopardy their ability to operate.

The conclusion is obvious. RTL is one of the few channels in Hungary not simply promoting a pro-Fidesz line; it is hard to see that the goal is anything other than to drive them out of Hungary. The Hungarian 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.

The freedom of establishment is a fundamental principle of the single market.

But it is about more than just one tax or just one company: it is part of a pattern that is deeply worrying; a pattern contrary to the EU's values. Taxation cannot be an instrument for discrimination, and tax policy should not be a political weapon.

A new media law introduced in 2010 put huge powers over the Hungary media into a body subject to political interference: breaching the Hungarian constitution and EU law and jeopardising fundamental rights. Later on, opposition radio station Klubrádió lost its licence; they eventually got it back, after a complex and costly fight, but the episode revealed(in the words of the European Parliament) "biased and opaque tendering practices". In 2013, new laws placed restrictions on political advertising. Meanwhile, just last month, the editor of online newspaper ORIGO was dismissed after it uncovered a political scandal; many link his dismissal to political pressure. 

Some of these criticisms and concerns have been addressed, under pressure from the EU and the international community. Others remain a very real worry.

A recent report from the OSCE shows the impact this is having. It found that, in the run-up to recent elections, the majority of monitored TV channels showed "significant bias" towards ruling party Fidesz; with RTL being one exception. And it highlights an "increasing number of outlets directly owned by businesspeople associated with Fidesz". The picture it paints is of a media sector that is (at best) uncertain and self-censoring; and at worst partisan if not government-controlled.

In that environment it is deeply damaging that the government would turn a blind eye: they should be engaging positively to manage threats to media pluralism. The fact is, government control, monopoly and censorship belong to a different, darker, period in Hungary's history: and no one should seek a return to it.

Fair and unbiased coverage is a principal function of a free and plural media.  Undermining that, and attempting to silence dynamic debate, is an attack on Hungarian democracy. For the sake of that democracy, and of the Hungarian people who have fought so hard to enjoy its benefits, we cannot stand by as idle spectators.

Hungary is not the only EU country where such concerns and debates exist; these are also issues raised, with different emphases and in different contexts, in Bulgaria, Italy, the UK and others. Europe needs to get its own house in order to ensure a free and plural media. There are many proposals out there for how to achieve that – including those set out in the Report of the High Level Group chaired by Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga. It's time we started taking those ideas seriously, for the sake of our freedom and democratic values

 

[This blog also appears, in Hungarian, in the Népszabadsag newspaper)

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  • This is nothing but biased political propaganda.
  • Last year, this single company RTL Klub had payed less tax, than myself, a private person. I think this is sickening.
  • Do you have any oppinion about the situation of the printed press in Spain where the government forced the change of three directors of one of the most important newspapers in the country? This situation is clearly related with the named “google tax” which pretend to be a pay-to-link tax which is clearly a 19th century law.
  • I have to disagree with Mrs. Kroes on the influence of the state on media. In the Netherlands the influence of the state is high. Over the last decades the media were restructured in such a way that commercial institutes did get a lot of space, money wise and channel wise. A commercial levy was created to make all users of cable media pay for commercial providers. Commercial providers introduced withe adagio that they would bring top TV and radio for free. History learned otherwise. Mrs Kroes party in parliament is trying to force a public organisation to publish its negotiated result with the football union. Public money should not create an advantage over private parties is the argument. Fidesz may learn from it. It is an argument for the moment. Conclusion set. Assumptions formulated in advance. High tax was created for the one commercial company. Would it not apply for another commercial company? Does the tax not apply to the other media? It does but they do not fit the high tax. That happens with laws made and applied in society. I think Mrs Kroes means that all profits should be made by commercial companies and the profits be left to the shareholders. Maybe they can use the Dutch tax connection to evade to pay taxes where the income is generated. Holland is a country where commercial activity is a kind of subsidized. Every memory stick has to pay taxes to the music industry. State TV is overloaded with advertizing to equal trash time at the commercial media. Meanwhile the neo liberal politicians cry in parliament that public broadcasting has an advantage over private companies. But they do not mention the contribution of all connected to the cable system have to pay a kind of tax to the commercial media to have it available. For me it sounds like a commercial tax, you have to pay and have no influence on what you get. It happens outside any democratic control; it is just a financial fix. In the media all kinds of high quality programs disappeared to make media space for the stars. They get high incomes for programs that would be better made in a competitive market with journalists. Let news compete with anchors. Let the journalist share in the glory. For me it would be great if we would again have stable and subsidized multiform media to inform the public and fire the public debate. Commercialized media do not really support democracy. Let the commercial media take care of amusement and generate the profits to be taxed for a subsidized public media system.
  • Ms. Kroes, Being a EU politician in Brussels paid by tax payers in the EU, you are required to do your job. Job job is not to make biased claims about countries, Governments or people. You should get much better prepared before posting different subjects as politician. "breaching the Hungarian constitution and EU law and jeopardising fundamental rights" - can be more specific on this please? Just because you are stating something, it is not necessarily in line with reality. Certainly, if you take what the opposition says in Hungary, that will not make it true. "the majority of monitored TV channels showed "significant bias" towards ruling party Fidesz" - can you please prove it Ms. Kroes not just state it. I state the opposite but is that enough? "The conclusion is obvious." Can you please back up you conclusion with undeniable facts? again, echoing what the opposition parties spread around world in the subject should not automatically mean that this is the case.
  • Dear Roland, the reference to "significant bias" is found in the report of the OSCE, readable here: http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/hungary/121098?download=true

    The interaction of the proposed Hungarian Media Law with EU law and with the Hungarian constitution is discussed by Vice President Kroes in her blog here: https://ec.europa.eu/commission_2010-2014/kroes/en/blog/media-pluralism-...

  • people criticizing Mrs Kroes should first look at the language of this extortius tax. It is obviously outrageous and against the spirit of the Union. Hungary is heading down an extremely dangerous road for itself and its neighbours. The Orban governmemt is extreme in every sense of the word and Hungary is turning into a fascist state. Orban is not only trying to control/destroy the media through taxes but also the banking, mobile payment and energy sectors. No foreign investor is sfe. I wonder why the German government is not putting more pressure on Orban given the importance of German FDI in the automotive sector...
  • Dear Jack, indeed the OSCE report is one good reference to "significant bias". What is really worrying is pretending that this report, as well as a number of similar sources, are beyond doubt "independent" and "objective". I hate to be the one breaking this to Ms Kroes - but they are not, and this is quite obvious just by scanning through this one for start. Plus, is it not the assignment of the Commission to guard the EU treaties? And guardians, by definition, should be neutral, impartial, and professional. What we see here is obviously something else: pushing a negative campaign against a particular government. I don't know much of what this government does, I am sure that there is another side to the story too - however, we don't get to know what that may be. Is this really what the citizens of Europe sign up for when they pay the EU institutions from their taxes? I doubt it.
  • According to this article Mrs Kroes really well informed about Hungarian Media. Probably she reads Hungarian Newspapers and listen to the Hungarian radio every day. Or not? So where these information come from? Well, her words and sentences are practically metaphrase of some Hungarian liberalfascist parties' (ex-SZDSZ, DK) opinion. Hmm.. to be honest, I firmly believe that the whole article was written by someone else. Mrs Kroes just published...
  • Today, the Antena 3 television studio and headquarter has been seized and confiscated by the Romanian state. This is an outrageous and sickening attack against the freedom of press and democratic values, but it is not being denounced, because the perpetrators are Mrs. Neelie Kroes's political allies in Romania.
  • Twitter ( like g+ and Facebook before ) just blocked all posters talking about NATO-OTAN Summit in Wales in a few days. Many posters were demanding a full Investigation to make sure Weapons Dealers and their Hedge Funds were not trying to corrupt EU Leaders into buying expensive and unneeded weapons with gifts, bribes, fees, special retirement contracts, commissions, etc., etc., and asking for a full Audit of all attendees. Well, Twitter just blocked the conversation, why? what are they afraid of ? In my opinion, the EU Parliament must make sure everything is done on the clear, transparent and honest. Thanks
  • The United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom zc to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers"

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