Secrets and Lies: The Contracts of National Media Providers

The Media Council and media providers winning a bid enter into a so-called official administrative contract which provides for a significant part of the terms and conditions under which the provider will operate. The contract reveals how much the provider is to pay the media authority, sets forth commitments regarding programming structure and content, stipulates sanctions, and may even impose obligations for a digital switchover further down the line. Although these details have a fundamental bearing on the entire media system in Hungary, they are not public at the present time.

The Media Council has revised the contracts of the nationwide commercial television stations in light of the new Media Act, and did the same with the contracts of the nationwide radio stations. We harbor the as yet unconfirmed suspicion that this revision was more than just a formality and effected material and substantive parts of the contracts, particularly as regards the rate of the media provision fee. It is likely that the revision of the contract terms with RTL Klub and TV2 is heavily influenced by the fact that the contracts of these stations, first signed in 1997, will expire in July this year. Starting that time, these stations will also have the green light to relocate operations to another member state of the European Union, with the viewers practically not noticing — as about 80% of the Hungarian-language stations have done.

The Media Council amended the contracts not only in complete secrecy but even disregarding the explanation requirements stipulated by procedural rules. Of course, we do not know for sure whether these revisions involved the fees at all. The contract itself is not public, and the officially posted language of the resolution declaring its transformation into an administrative contract is evasive. This despite the fact that enabling public access in this case would have been capable of legitimizing media policy intentions, given that keeping the large commercial stations within the country — and by means within reason — is certainly an interest we all share.

The situation with the nationwide commercial radio stations is another matter entirely. Their contracts have been revised and, once again, we cannot be sure whether the media provision fees have changed. But if they were reduced, this must be seen as the worthy — even foreseeable — culmination of the swindled bid, which certain nationwide stations, having acquired eligibility unfairly and unlawfully, won by pledging half of their net revenues annually plus HUF 200 million — an unreasonably high media provision fee. The fact that the bid was rigged was corroborated by the judgment of the Supreme Court. Moreover, for radios relocating to another country would be out of the question, for a variety of technical and legal reasons.

It is our position that these contracts should be disclosed due to the public interest of their content, since what is invariably contemplated in them is the sale of frequencies owned exclusively by the state. Pursuant to the Civil Code, “Any data that is related to […] the management, control, use and appropriation and encumbrance of central and local government assets; and the acquisition of any rights in connection with such assets shall not be deemed business secrets.” The terms and conditions of ceding user rights to frequencies for purposes of providing media broadcasts are clearly relevant to the interest of the public vested in the efficient management of frequency assets and in a media system fashioned in full respect of constitutional criteria.