On January 21st, Hungarian WATCH sat down with Peter Molnar for a 3-hour interview. Molnar, a former law school roommate of Viktor Orbán and one of the founders of the Fidesz party (back when both Orbán and Fidesz were liberal) is a senior research fellow at the Center for Media and Communication Studies at the Central European University in Budapest. He was a member of the Hungarian Parliament from 1990-1998 and was one of the principal drafters of the 1996 Hungarian media law.
NOTE: The transcription below has been slightly edited for the sake of clarity.
OLD MEDIA LAW vs NEW MEDIA LAW
Peter Molnar: There were good parts of the media law, but a basic problem in the system sprung from the negotiation in spring 1995. Unfortunately, at that time, all parties (except the liberal party that I represented) pushed for a system in which each parliamentary party had the right to nominate at least one member to all media boards, which supervised the whole media market and the public media.
All other parties agreed, and in the end the liberal party accepted, that each party would have the right under the law to directly nominate at least one member of each media board. And this was a fundamental problem because it was clear that direct nomination by the parties would make the media boards too political, too dependent on the parties. The parties, with very few exceptions, as a result of their weakness in exercising self-restraint and commitment to public interest, would then send in members who would push party interests rather than representing professional ideals and strategies.
I’m mentioning this because I think it is very important to emphasize that the current government in Hungary fails to practice self-restraint. It legislated a law that provides total control for the governing party. In order to be fair, it has to be emphasized that, when enacting the previous media law, all parliamentary parties failed to exercise self-restraint—except the liberal party, until it acquiesced in the fall of 1995 at the end of the negotiations, which was not my decision but a decision made by one of the leaders of the party that I could not change, unfortunately. In the end, all parties had the opportunity to have their hands in there instead of creating a system in which they would not have had that opportunity to nominate members of the media boards directly. Very few showed self-restraint and commitment to public interest in this regard.
So in this sense, a lack of willingness to exercise self-restraint on behalf of all parties—with the exception of the liberal party—was a mistake similar to the mistake of this current government. This similarity has to be part of a fair analysis.
But it also has to be emphasized that there is a fundamental difference between the two systems, which is clearly more important than the similarity. Under the previous law, the opposition parties had the right to nominate 50% of the members of the media boards. So, the governing parties then exercised self-restraint in 2 ways:
- First, the governing parties—although we had the two-thirds majority of votes—didn’t pass the law without the opposition, which was a very, very important gesture. It was about trying to create an unwritten rule of self-restraint by the democratically elected majority. Such unwritten rules are obviously so important because not everything can be written into law. The culture of a constitutional democracy includes unwritten rules too.
- Second, the governing parties accepted that, while the opposition parties had only 20-something% of the seats, they nominated 50% of the boards. That was also a very very significant exercise of self-restraint, because basically it created a system of checks and balances, and it made sure that the governing majority of any time, any parliament cannot have majority influence in the media boards.
Another element of the system of checks and balances—which is of course part of the foundation of any constitutional democracy—was that the head of the radio/TV board, which supervised the whole media market, had to be nominated together by the prime minister and the president. So that means that, for example, in the last five years, we had a conservative president and a socialist prime minister. They had to agree and nominate someone together to be president of the board. Again, checks and balances. No political party or representative of a political party had decisive influence alone about appointing someone who had significant control over the media system. So, this was the previous system.
In the current media law, which created such heated controversy, the government failed to realize the need for any self-restraint. They just used their two-thirds majority to pass the law. They didn’t follow the example of the government of the mid-90s. Also, they created a regulation under which the governing majority nominated and elected all members of a main media board. So now they have, I emphasize, not only decisive influence, but exclusive influence. It’s all about this exclusive influence: no self-restraint, no system of checks and balances.
It is important to mention that it goes against the constitutional principle laid down by the Constitutional Court in 1992, when the court said that it is unconstitutional for any political or other social group to have decisive influence over the public media. This principle clearly applies to the whole media system. So, even decisive influence would be unconstitutional, and the new regulation created exclusive influence of the governing majority!
Now the law is in front of the Constitutional Court. There is no deadline for them. The Constitutional Court can do the constitutional review any time. It’s an abstract review; it’s not the Supreme Court. We have a separate Constitutional Court that does abstract constitutional reviews, so they don’t look at cases, they look at the text of the law, and they decide whether that that law is constitutional or unconstitutional.
Click here to read Part 3 of the interview, in which Peter Molnar illuminates for us Hungary’s “worthy but tragic tradition” of freedom of press and speech, and articulates his hope for a healthy path forward.