Exemplary behaviour

Published in Hungarian on 1st July 2015

Author: Krisztina Nagy 

The media authority’s content control activities focus on monitoring to verify compliance with quantifiable and formal requirements which are irrelevant in terms of media policy objectives. Viewed through the lens of official decisions, the media operate in an exemplary manner. We cannot discern any media policy objectives aimed at increasing the diversity of media offerings or improving the availability of quality information. Mérték has concluded its assessment of the Media Council’s work in 2014. A summary by Krisztina Nagy.

Ever since the new media regulations have entered into effect, Mérték Media Monitor has been monitoring the media authority’s practice when it comes to reviewing media contents. We evaluated the application of the law between 2011 and 2013 in four analyses (1, 2, 3, 4,).  In these analyses, we investigated to what extent and by what means the media authority has interfered with editorial freedom and whether its sanctions practice disproportionately limits press freedom. We also assessed all other activities performed by the media authority that are liable to influence editorial decisions or to effect changes in terms of what media offerings are available to the public. 

According to our previously published data, there has been a continual decline in the number of Media Council decisions establishing that media contents had violated the law, and this trend persisted in 2014; the Council has issued fewer such decisions than ever before. According to the data available, the Media Council has issued 120 decisions which determined that a violation of the law had occurred, while the Office issued 23.

The media authority’s content control activities focus on monitoring to verify compliance with quantifiable and formal requirements which are irrelevant in terms of media policy objectives. There is no discernible media policy intention aimed at exerting any substantial influence on expanding the diversity of available contents or promoting the public’s access to quality information. Based on the authority’s application of individual rules we can state that the legal institution of balanced coverage has essentially become hollowed out, while the authority’s role in child protection has become minimised. The impact of media content regulations or of the co-regulation system on on-demand media services and print and online press products is not discernible. 

In the context of its monitoring of media contents, the media authority is still not reacting to conflicts that are vital in terms of their social impact but pursues an essentially formalistic approach to the performance of this responsibility. It is apparent that the authority has no desire to exert a substantial influence on the conflicts that arise in the course of the media’s operations. 

Looking at the authority’s activities, it seems that media content providers perform their work in an exemplary manner, complying with all regulations or avoiding any conflict situations. The reduction in the number of proceedings and the media authority’s nigh invisibility in public superficially suggest that there has been a reduction in the state’s interference in the world of media. In reality, that is not the case. Nor has there been a substantial decline in the instances of communication that incite to hatred or a significant improvement in the way newsrooms relate to human dignity; and the protection of minors through state intervention can also not be considered a full success. 

What appears to underlie the decline in the number of proceedings is that a significant portion of media service providers in the Hungarian market do not fall under Hungarian jurisdiction. A typical trend is that televisions broadcast their controversial shows on channels that are registered abroad. The goal of luring these (back) to Hungary, which was often discussed previously, has visibly failed, and the media authority does not engage in any activity to this end. 

This attitude of non-interference seemingly pre-empts one of the most important concerns that cropped up in the debates surrounding the introduction of the new media laws: the danger of a Media Council that wields “unlimited power”. Indeed, by looking only at their content control activities, no one could reasonably argue that the Media Council and the Media Council’s president rule over the world of Hungarian media. The formal approach that is characteristic of the authority’s control activities, as well as the general approach that reacts to individual events rather than the general problems that give rise to them, fails to exert any discernible impact on the diversity of media offerings; the latter is affected neither by the range of subjects that are impacted by the media authority’s actions nor by the intensity of its interventions. The authority’s application of the law is still not helpful in facilitating the work of newsrooms by delineating the substance and boundaries of regulatory content. 

Yet the authority’s laid back approach to the application of the law fails to remedy the anomalies of the current regulatory order. For one, there is always the chance that the Media Council will change its current attitude, since there are no legal limits to the possibility of a more forceful intervention. At the same time, as we have described in more detail in our studies concerning the phenomenon of soft censorship (here and here), it has also become increasingly obvious that the state is actively engaged in reshaping the media market, the diversity of media offerings and media control, and in scaling back the availability of plural information, but it does so through instruments that fall outside the scope of media law narrowly understood. 

If we truly want a state whose operations are designed in such a manner as to enhance press freedom, then what we need is not a system of control that is based on the authority’s self-restraint, but one that is based on deregulation. It is absurd to lay down an excessively complex and endlessly refined system of legal requirements, and to add a well-equipped, well-staffed and well-funded public body that in the interest of peace is only concerned with making sure that the media comply with minute details and formal requirements rather than the essential issued. 

The analysis shows that the prevailing legal environment and the system of  applying sanctions basically serve one objective: to maintain a sense of potential menace. Though as believers in press freedom we appreciate the Media Council’s laid back practice, we find it important to stress that the current arrangements are by far not the ideal safeguards of our basic freedoms.