The Putinization of Hungary

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Sunday, December 26, 2010; 7:07 PM

NEXT MONTH many European Union members may be regretting their system of a rotating presidency. That's because the gavel will be handed to Hungary, whose populist and power-hungry government has just adopted a media law more suited to an authoritarian regime than to a Western democracy.

The right-wing Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban won 53 percent of the popular vote in an election this year but gained 66 percent of the seats in parliament - enough to change the constitution. It proceeded to take over or attack the authority of every institution it did not control, including the presidency, the Supreme Court and the state audit office; the central bank is now under its assault.

Meanwhile, Mr. Orban has overseen passage of two media laws that will put Hungary in a league with Russia and Belarus on press freedom. One puts Fidesz in control of state television channels and all other public media outlets. The second, approved by parliament on Tuesday, creates a powerful Media Council with the authority to regulate newspapers, television, radio and the Internet. The council may issue decrees and impose heavy fines - up to $950,000 - for news coverage it considers "unbalanced" or offensive to "human dignity." Journalists can be forced to reveal their sources, and the council can search editorial offices and require that publishers reveal confidential business information.

All five members of the council will be Mr. Orban's party followers. As the representative for press freedom of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe put it, "such concentration of power in regulatory authorities is unprecedented in European democracies, and it harms media freedom."

Hungary's private media have strongly protested. So have its democratic neighbors, who have compared Mr. Orban to Russia's Vladimir Putin. The foreign minister of Luxembourg had the sense to publicly question whether Hungary was suited to take over the rotating presidency Jan. 1. But some governments have kept quiet, preferring not to stir up yet another controversy in the crisis-plagued E.U.

That's the wrong approach. Europe cannot allow a member government to flout fundamental freedoms without consequence. Some ready leverage is available: Hungary is due to host a European Union summit meeting in Budapest in May, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expected to attend. Mr. Orban should be given a choice between curbing his concentration of power and amending the media laws - or suffering the humiliation of having the European Union and the United States move or boycott his summit.


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