BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary will change its much-criticised media law if the European Union wants, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Thursday, but he said there was nothing in it that was not in other EU countries’ laws.
Orban delivered a vigorous defence of the legislation, which has been roundly criticised by EU states such as France, Britain and Germany because of concerns about restrictions on media freedom, saying it was long overdue and democratic.
But he acknowledged the criticism levelled at his government and said that if the European Commission, which is studying the text, sought alterations, they would be made.
“We are part of the EU, there are rules of the game,” Orban told foreign reporters invited to Hungary as the country assumes the rotating presidency of the EU for the next six months.
“Any procedure that the EU starts and initiates, Hungary will accept it... If we are not right, and it becomes a fact, we will agree and we will correct it,” he said.
But he said he did not believe there was anything in Hungary’s law that was not already in any other EU member state’s legislation and said that if Hungary was asked for changes, then other countries should amend their laws too.
“If this (or that) passage of the Hungarian media act should be amended, then the media laws in France, Germany and the Danish media laws should be changed too as there is nothing in our legislation that is not in their media laws,” he said.
“I defy anyone to find anything in our law that is not in other EU member states’ media laws.”
The legislation has cast a shadow over Budapest’s EU presidency, with some politicians questioning whether Hungary is fit to run the EU’s agenda for the next six months.
There has also been strong criticism from foreign companies affected by “crisis taxes” Hungary has imposed on some sectors of the economy, including energy, telecoms and retail.
Orban, whose centre-right Fidesz party holds a two-thirds majority in parliament, making it possible to drive through changes to the law quickly, acknowledged that Hungary had had a bad start to what will be a closely watched presidency.
“I agree this is a bad start, who would want to start like this?” he said, adding that there was little he could do about it. “I cannot change it, I live with it.”
Hungary says the media law had to be changed because the old legislation was ineffective, with increasingly virulent tabloid TV channels and newspapers acting with impunity.
Andras Koltay, a professor of media freedom who helped draft the law, used the examples of a newspaper that ran front page pictures of a Hungarian footballer shortly before he died during a game, and a TV reality show that questioned a girl about her sex life until she broke down.
“They were violations of human dignity, and that is what this new law aims to protect,” he said.
But some passages have raised profound concern about how far Hungary is willing to go to enforce tighter rules.
Article 17 of one part of the new law says: “The media content may not offend or discriminate against — whether expressedly or by implication — persons, nations, communities, national, ethnic, linguistic and other minorities or any majority as well as any church or religious groups,” according to an official translation. Critics say that is too broad a net.
“There can be no doubt that Hungary poses a very serious challenge for the European Union,” said Constanze Stelzenmueller of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.
“The new laws are only the latest in a series of profoundly illiberal power grabs — from the constitutional court to pension funds, cultural institutions, and the fiscal and monetary authorities — by the Fidesz government.”
Asked if he was governing in a similar style to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Orban dismissed the comparison: “From 1998 to 2002, the Western press said I was reminiscent of Hitler and Il Duce (Benito Mussolini). Now they compare me with Putin and the Belarussian president. I will leave up to you decide if it is progress or not.”
Additional reporting by Krisztina Than and Paul Taylor in Paris; Editing by Louise Ireland