Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, has passed a law empow­ering the gov­ern­ment to reg­u­late pri­vate media through the newly appointed Media Council. The council will be autho­rized to inves­ti­gate and issue fines to any news medium for such cov­erage it deems unbal­anced or offen­sive to the public; the council will also directly con­trol most of Hungary’s media outlets.

Oppo­nents, including the inter­na­tional news media and other polit­ical par­ties, say the law, which took effect Jan. 1, threatens free speech and demo­c­ratic principles.

Jour­nalism pro­fessor Nicholas Daniloff, a former cor­re­spon­dent for United Press Inter­na­tional and U.S. News & World Report in London, Paris, Moscow and Wash­ington, D.C., sheds light on what the law means for the future of Hun­garian media.

How might the new law affect media con­tent and quality? What obsta­cles could jour­nal­ists con­front as they are forced to obey?

Hun­gary has adopted a mas­sive media law amounting to nearly 200 pages, 230 arti­cles and sev­eral annexes. The law seeks to limit what author­i­ties view as unac­cept­able excesses, such as assaults on human dig­nity, car­i­ca­turing of national sym­bols and sen­sa­tional or vio­lent por­trayals that might affect minor chil­dren. Under this law, for example, the pres­i­dent of Hun­gary could not be written about the way Pres­i­dent Clinton was por­trayed during the Monika Lewinsky affair. The law also seeks to dic­tate how much broad­casting must be in Hun­garian and how much may be in other Euro­pean languages.

With the Hun­garian gov­ern­ment reg­u­lating the majority of media out­lets, how can its cit­i­zens access unbi­ased national news?

Pro­vi­sions of the law would be over­seen and enforced by a Media Council with the power to issue fines and even sus­pend pub­li­ca­tion or broad­casting. From an Amer­ican First Amend­ment per­spec­tive, this is clearly an attack on freedom of the media, freedom of expres­sion, and pos­sibly even of reli­gion and free assembly to redress griev­ances. It is a law that pro­motes author­i­tar­i­anism, not democracy.

Is there any­thing pos­i­tive that can come from this kind of media con­trol?

The only pos­i­tive ele­ment that I can foresee is a robust dis­cus­sion every­where that broad freedom of expres­sion is valued. Such a dis­cus­sion might lead to revi­sions in the law. How­ever, such revi­sions would prob­ably not be great, as pres­sure for media restric­tions in Hun­gary has been building over the last decade.

Is there prece­dent for this sort of law in a demo­c­ratic country? Does it por­tend a trend or do you see it as a fluke?

Demo­c­ratic coun­tries impose some restric­tions on media. In the United States, indi­vidual laws handle sen­si­tive areas such as dis­clo­sure of iden­ti­ties of secret agents, defama­tion of indi­vid­uals and espi­onage mat­ters. France has pro­vi­sions that make it a crime to den­i­grate gov­erning offi­cials, gov­erning authority and its sym­bols. Britain has an Offi­cial Secrets Act, which makes it a crime for a jour­nalist to pub­lish gov­ern­ment defense secrets.

With Hun­garian and inter­na­tional con­stituen­cies protesting the law, do you think it can stand?

The Hun­garian Press Law looks like lawyers and politi­cians drafted it without input from jour­nal­ists, edi­tors or pub­lishers. It reflects a deep sense of inse­cu­rity among those who govern. While it may be adjusted as the result of vig­orous dis­cus­sion and protests, many of its restric­tive pro­vi­sions will likely remain.