Bloomberg News

Hungary Court Rules Media, Criminal Law Violate Basic Rights

December 20, 2011

(Updates with criminal in first paragraph, adds background starting in third.)

Dec. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Hungary’s Constitutional Court vetoed parts of the media and criminal codes that were internationally criticized for curbing press freedom and the judiciary’s independence.

The court also annulled a new law regulating religious organizations on procedural grounds, the court in Budapest said in three separate rulings that were e-mailed today.

Since coming to power last year, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s lawmakers curbed the powers of the Constitutional Court, ousted the Supreme Court’s chief justice, wrote a new Constitution, replaced an independent Fiscal Council with one dominated by his allies and created a media regulator whose directors were exclusively picked by ruling party officials.

The media law “unconstitutionally limited freedom of the written press,” the Constitutional Court said in its ruling, citing more stringent regulation for newspapers versus other media. The court also scrapped a regulation that would force journalists to reveal their sources in most cases.

Thousands of Hungarians have protested this year against measures that they say allow greater government control of press coverage. Political influence and the threat of fines may spawn self-censorship in Hungary, UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue said in April, adding that there was a “framework of control” over the media. Public television fired the head of news gathering last week after a probe into manipulated news reports.

Criminal-Procedure Changes

The regulation of the press is constitutional “in its aim and system,” the state Media Authority said in an e-mailed statement today in response to the court’s decision, adding that the court’s decision won’t “substantially” affect the authority’s work “in upholding the freedom of press and speech.”

The ruling Fidesz party will strive to find a “constitutional” solution on the aspects of the media and criminal codes which the court vetoed today, state-run news service MTI reported, citing Janos Lazar, the party’s parliamentary group leader.

The Constitutional Court annulled rules allowing the chief prosecutor to hand-pick courts for trials, the possibility of keeping a person in preliminary detention for five days without pressing charges and barring a detained person from contacting a lawyer in the first two days.

Hungary elected new top justices last week as part of a judicial overhaul that ousted Supreme Court Chief Andras Baka. Parliament elected Tunde Hando, a judge specialized in labor disputes and the wife of Jozsef Szajer, a ruling party member who helped rewrite the Constitution, as head of the judicial agency.

The European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, has “serious concerns” about Hungary’s judicial overhaul, Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said in a letter to Hungary’s government last week, Nepszabadsag reported on Dec. 16.

The U.S. is “deeply” concerned that Hungary’s democracy is weakening as the government “eliminates” checks and balances on its power, news website hvg.hu reported on Dec. 16, citing an interview with Thomas O. Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of State.

--Editors: Alan Crosby, Tim Farrand

To contact the reporter on this story: Zoltan Simon in Budapest at zsimon@bloomberg.net Andras Gergely at agergely@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net


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