EU leaders are due to meet in Budapest tomorrow to mark the start of Hungary’s six-month presidency of the European Union, but the ceremonies are set to be overshadowed by heavy opposition to the country’s new media laws.

On Saturday regulations came into effect giving complete control to the newly formed National Media and Communications Authority when it comes to deciding what is and isn’t acceptable for the public’s eyes and ears.

Media outlets complain that Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s so-called new “media constitution” will be detrimental to true journalistic reportage with sources no longer being able to enjoy the guarantee of remaining anonymous. This, however, is only half the story.

The changes that passed on 4 November have already attracted both domestic and international condemnation, with the new law stating that any media organization or individual caught violating “public interest, public morals, or order” could be fined up to 200 million forints ($950,000).

In December several of Hungary’s newspapers ran blank front pages including the influential liberal Magyar Narancs, while both Britain’s Foreign Office and Germany’s deputy foreign minister, Werner Hoyer, issued statements emphasizing that freedom of the press is at the heart of EU policy and calling for the Hungarian government to resolve the issue without it impacting on the delivery of the EU presidency. Could it already be too late, however?

Media lawyer Eva Simon, from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union is set to challenge the law in court, and the bill has provoked a strong reaction from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which believes that it “endangers editorial independence and media pluralism.”

The first victim of Hungary’s potential new era of censorship, however, is a rather unexpected one.

American rapper Ice-T, who enjoyed success in the 1980s and 1990s with a string of suitably provocative hip hop hits, has found his expletive-strewn 1994 missive, Warning, under investigation for breaching the new regulations.

The authority has said that the song should only have been legally broadcast after 9 p.m. and is investigating Budapest’s Tilos Radio for playing it at 5.30 p.m. in September.

Whether Ice-Tgate proves to be a turning point in the debate on the amendments remains to be seen, but retroactive disapproval of a tune that caused no more than a minor stir when released nearly 20 years ago is hardly encouraging when it comes to more serious media matters. Indeed, Hungary’s new media policy could become as comical as the song itself.

Andrew Fenwick

Andrew Fenwick is multimedia editor at Transitions Online. Email: andrew.fenwick@tol.org

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