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)