Hungary admits 'bad start' to EU presidency

6th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

Hungary stood firm against French and German criticism of its media law Thursday, which threatened to tarnish its presidency of the European Union after an already less than ideal start.

"Yes this is a bad start, who would want to start like that?" Prime Minister Viktor Orban said.

"We adopted a law that we consider perfectly OK and the world criticises it," he told foreign journalists ahead of a ceremony to mark the start of the six-month EU presidency.

Budapest has been under a barrage of fire for weeks after adopting a media law that critics say will restrict press freedom.

Days after taking over the helm of the EU on January 1, the debate has already tarnished the Hungarian presidency.

Yet, Orban, a centre-right leader with a strong populist streak, insisted Thursday that Budapest would only change the media text if there was agreement between the EU as a whole, adding it would not be dictated to by two of the bloc's powerhouses.

"It's not up to the French or the Germans" to say whether the Hungarian law complies with EU regulations, he said, following recent censure from Berlin and Paris.

"The EU should decide," he added.

France called this week for Hungary to amend the new law, noting it was "incompatible" with EU rules on press freedom, while Germany has also heavily criticised the text.

The European Commission meanwhile expressed "doubts" on whether the controversial law complied with rules on media freedom in the 27-member bloc.

"Naturally any procedure that the EU starts Hungary will accept, because we are part of the EU," Orban said on the eve of talks between his government and the entire European Commission Friday in Budapest.

"However the most important principle is anti-discrimination, so I can't imagine a situation where one says this aspect of the Hungarian law must be changed while the same in other countries does not need to be changed," he added, insisting the Hungarian text was similar to that of most EU states.

For Orban, criticism from individual governments was wide of the mark.

"I consider it too hasty and unnecessary the way the French and German governments have reacted in this debate."

He said he was "happy to see" however that Germany was going back on its initial comments from December.

"And I expect the French to do the same."

"I don't remember Hungary criticising the French media law," Orban added.

Unlike Hungary, France has a law whereby the president can name the head of the national public television, "and I never said that it was an anti-democratic law," he pointed out.

"I would ask the French government to return to the level of reality and rational discussion," he added.

Under the new media legislation -- which came into force on January 1 -- a new regulatory body, the NMHH, has the right to impose fines of up to 200 million forint (720,000 euros, 950,000 dollars) for material that is considered offensive.

Headed by a close ally of Orban -- prompting concerns over its political independence -- it also has the right to inspect documents and force journalists to reveal sources on issues related to national security.

Media watchdogs and rights groups, like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Amnesty International have warned the law could impede press freedom and silence critical reporting.

Orban also brushed off criticism of a "crisis" tax that several major European firms have slammed as targeting only foreign companies, insisting there was "absolutely no national distinction."

He also confirmed plans to give ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring countries the right to vote in Hungary.

"Such citizens have the right to vote if they belong to the community of that country," he said.

As of January 1, ethnic Hungarians can already request Hungarian citizenship, a move that has created severe tensions with neighbouring Slovakia.

© 2011 AFP

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