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The New Hungarian Media Law. Is the Worldwide Criticism Justified?

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tamas_baratSince 1st of January 2011 the EU member Hungary has a new media law. This law was criticized not only by the Hungarians e.g. the National Association of Hungarian Journalists, but in a wide range by the European and American Media and political power as well. We had the chance to speak with Dr. Tamas Barat, former Vice President of the European Public Relations Confederation (CERP). Today he is Professor of Corporate Communication, Member Emeritus of the Hungarian Public Relations Association and Editor-in-Chief of the CCO Magazine, a portal site for communication's practitioners, experts and students who are studying communication and/or public relations.

Mr. Barat, what is your opinion about this new law in your home country?

First of all I would like to clarify, that in general I do not agree with the new Hungarian Media Act, as published in the Hungarian media. The Hungarian media complains that the new law violates the freedom of speech. This is probably true. However my main problem is not only the preservation of the freedom of the speech. As a public relations practitioner I look at the question in several different ways.  

Really? Is this law the limitation of the freedom of speech?

The Hungarian Government claimed that the law does not mean the imposition of censorship. They said the new Hungarian Media law does not contain any rules that are not already included in other European laws.
I do not believe that any European media rules and regulations accept the censorship. I think the new Hungarian law creates a kind of censorship, namely the self-censorship. This is the worst form of censorship, because by practicing self-censorship, the journalist himself limits the expression of his views. This self-censorship is the result of fear. The consequence of this, that they are scared to voice their opinion. An example: a radio journalist was suspended from his job, when he protested against the Media Act. This is the reason why I mentioned, that this new law is against the European Charter of the Fundamental Human Rights, which declares, that an employee has the right to defend himself in case of unjustified dismissal.

You said that you have other problems with this law. What is your opinion, what's wrong with this new law?

My main problem is that the new Hungarian Media Law has a conflict with other internationally accepted norms, as well. This law goes also against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the European Charter of the Fundamental Human Rights. The new Hungarian law is against the 19th   paragraph of this declaration.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
I will give an example: The new law says: The new Media Authority has a right to control the published articles, on the TV-, or radio programs and also on the internet sites, the blogs, or in the printed media.
The new Media Authority has the right to impose extremely high penalties if it does not like materials published in the electronic and/or the printed media.
The problem is that the new Media Authority is not independent from the government party, its members are authorized to define what constitutes the violation of the law, and there is no objective standard. If they do not like something, they can decide subjectively that it is against the law and they have right to impose a financial penalty.

Mr. Barat, you work not only in Hungary, but in the United States as well. Has the new Hungarian Media Law been a subject in the news coverage in the US? And what was the tenor?

I am working in New York as a consultant in different civil programs, education management and media, within it, the e-pr.  My partners are American companies and civil associations.  They are asking me: what is happening in Hungary? 
The people, who understand the events in Hungary, could describe their opinion with one sentence, which was published by CNN: “the law is too vague and its scope too wide.”

What role plays the fact that Hungary took over the presidency of the European Union Council at the same date?

The fact that Hungary is now the European Union Council President creates a very pertinent question. The EU parliamentary debate of the Hungarian media law is to draw attention to the fact that the European Union Member States are closely interrelated. EU Member States do not create their own national law, which goes against the EU principles, laws and expectations. I could compare this, to the U.S. law, in which the member states of the United States may have specific laws, but they must be consistent with the Federal law.
The new Hungarian media law was debated by the EU Civil Liberties and the Culture Committees in Strasbourg. Some MEP’s urged Hungary to withdraw the law immediately.
In my opinion, the most important statement in this matter is, what the EU Digital agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes said: the Commission is assessing the new law's compatibility with the EU Audiovisual and Media Services (AVMS) Directive, and that the preliminary examination had already indicated some problems, such as its apparent application to media firms established in other EU countries, the rules on media registration, unclear definitions and political control over the media authority.

As PR practitioner you know about the importance of image. What are the consequences you fear for the more or less positive image of Hungary?

As a practitioner and as a professor of communication I usually tell to my clients and also to my students, that it is difficult to create a good image, but there is only one thing which is more difficult: to maintain it. If there is something more challenging than that, it is to recover ones reputation after loosing face. 
A famous Hungarian Hollywood actress, Zsazsa Gabor said: No matter what you say about an actress, good or bad, the importance is that it should appear in the media.

Well, it is not true for the country's image. It is well known that an image of the country depends on the historical facts and the products manufactured there. 

For example, Germany has a well known country symbol: the car brands. Hungary also has some identifyers. Such things are the Hungarian “puszta”, the horseman, the Hungarian wine, brandy, the “pálinka”. The memories of 1956 events, or the contribution to the demolition of the Berlin Wall, are also parts of Hungary’s positive image. Unfortunately, the new Hungarian media law is undermining the reputation of the country. 
To restore the good name is hard work. It needs years and years. If you ask me, the PR experts could propose effective solutions to rebuild the lost reputation.

You mentioned that as a Public Relations practitioner you have also problems with this law. What's wrong with this law in the Public Relations aspects?

Yes, but first let’s remember the CERP (European Public Relations Confederation) definition of Public Relations: “Public relations is the conscious organisation of the communication. The task of Public Relations is: To achieve mutual understanding and to establish beneficial relationship, between the organization and its publics and environment, through two-way communication.”
I accept this definition therefore I have to argue against this new media law, because it is very similar to an old communist’s theory. In the communist era they had a principle, called: agitation propaganda. That time it was only one party, they had some political leaders, who had the right to determine the ideology. There was no display of disagreement allowed. It was only one-way communication.
My problem is that the Hungarian government follows the old fashioned theory, the one-way communication, instead of the democratic two-way communication.

I mentioned the definition of the Public Relations. It suggests that Public Relations need the democracy. The democracy needs Public Relations.
I hope the Hungarian government will follow another Public Relations principal, as well. This principal declares that the Public Relations' main task is to establish mutual understanding and mutual beneficial relationship.

I hope that the Hungarian Government will re-think and change this much-criticized law and the results will be more democratic.
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