Media freedom and balance in today’s world inundated with questionable news sources and biased reporting is something worthy of discussion in European lawmaking circles. Unfortunately, the European Parliament’s LIBE committee’s poor handling of the issue has hindered sensible debate on the subject, and the recent hearing on “media freedom and pluralism in the EU” is a perfect example.
Despite the fact the hearing was to be about media freedom in the EU, and the LIBE Committee presented a case study entitled “A comparative analysis of media freedom and pluralism in the EU Member States,” the real substance was hardly that. First of all, the study looks at only seven Member States out of the 28. Out of those 7, Hungary and Poland receive the most attention, both getting about 20 pages, whereas the remaining five countries each get about half this length. The two “experts” named in the study are both Hungarians, and one of the two has no connection to the field of media research.
The study, in fact, contained a number of erroneous statements. It is not a “comparative analysis.” Its scope is not “EU Member States,” and most people would not call it a study. It is a political pamphlet.
From the beginning, the study makes a biased assumption. The current media situation in Hungary has been on the LIBE agenda multiple times, and despite the fact that many influential media outlets are critical of the current Hungarian government, LIBE remains determined to prove otherwise. Never mind the facts, the verdict in this case was written before the trial.
Hungary’s most visited internet site (after search, Youtube and Facebook) is Index.hu – a news outlet that would never be considered pro-government. Hungary’s most watched television channel is RTL Klub – a strongly opposition-leaning news program. Hungary’s largest circulation non-tabloid daily is Magyar Nemzet, which is run by a publisher known for his unprintable rants about the current government. Radio is the only platform where the dominant news-politics outlet is not owned by opposition-leaning figures, simply because it is the public radio station.
The typical approach requires a couple of biased experts, who prepare a “study” that diminishes the number of opinions or perspectives from the other side of the debate. Here’s an example from the text:
“Almost all major media outlets [in Hungary] are owned by domestic oligarchs who have informal links to the political and economic sector,” the study states. Consider for a moment that conclusion. Put aside for a moment the very subjective “oligarch” label and ask the obvious question: In what country of the world can you find major media outlets that are owned by private business interests that do not have informal links to the political and economic sector?
What the study does then is carefully exclude the left-wing media owners and instead presents a rather selective list of right-wing media investments of the past years and labels those outlets as purveyors of fake news. According the left-wing majority on the LIBE Committee, media outlets (and their owners) that operate with a liberal editorial bias represent the norm. Media that deliver news and information from an alternative perspective, however, are a threat to the freedom of the press.
Here’s another line, which makes even more apparent the political stance of the authors: “Hardly did the economic crisis appear to ease, when another striking event hit media freedom in the EU: in 2010, a significant political, and consequently, a legal and constitutional shift occurred in Hungary. Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary used his supermajority in Parliament to launch a new model of illiberal democracy.” For those few who missed it in 2010, Prime Minister Orbán won a supermajority in 2010, replacing the Socialists in a completely democratic election process and he won again in 2014, taking another two-thirds majority. Neither of these supermajorities have had any effect on Hungary’s (even less on the EU’s) media freedom – despite the LIBE Committee’s concerted efforts to prove otherwise.
Why is LIBE so determined? It likely began as an effort by the political left to raise Hungary’s domestic issues to an international platform, and specifically the Hungarian post-communist left’s traditional eagerness to undermine their opponent with the help of a large, foreign force. Joining forces with them is an American financial speculator, who is often warmly received in the EU institutions as if he were a head of state, yet – unlike with heads of states – his meeting agendas remain secret. No surprise that both rapporteurs of the study come from the George Soros network, with previous and current, formal ties to Soros NGO’s.
After drawing this distorted picture of the Hungarian media landscape, the study adds to the absurdity by concluding that the EU should introduce some oversight of the freedom of the press in Hungary.
You “are most certainly aware of the importance of preserving the good reputation and credibility of EU institutions. In our view, it is to be expected that LIBE, whose activity regarding democracy and rule-of- law in Hungary has got such an exposure and criticism in recent years, acts with due diligence and professionalism when it comes to commissioning studies, in order to avoid the suspicion that EU tax-payers’ money are used to finance politically biased studies,” wrote MEPs András Gyürk and József Szájer in a letter to the LIBE Chairman. The credibility of the Committee is at stake. I would assume that taxpayers of the EU would prefer that the LIBE Committee focus on real issues instead of political crusades.
The protection of media pluralism and freedom – the people’s undeniable right to access valid news and information – is a debate worth having. It would require a team of more knowledgeable and competent experts than those at the LIBE today, but first and foremost, a political will to do so. If discussion on media freedom is continually exchanged for petty partisan politics, the discussion on real threats to liberty in today’s world of fake news will remain arduous.