Hungary's `Media War' Curbs Press Freedoms

POLITICAL deadlock and the Hungarian government's recent legally controversial steps against state television and radio are fueling fears that press freedoms may become a casualty of the country's long-raging "media war."

The embattled presidents of Hungarian radio and television, both state monopolies, submitted their resignations Jan. 6. The ruling center-right coalition, whose members have accused both men of anti-government bias, last month put TV's budget under the prime minister's control and suspended its president, Elemer Hankiss. Opposition parties call both steps illegal.

The media chiefs agreed. Mr. Hankiss, who faces "disciplinary proceedings" before government ministers this week, said Parliament's failure Dec. 31 to pass a long-awaited media law was the last straw. "We've been waiting two years for a law to protect the Hungarian media," he said. "We cannot wait anymore."

Since 1990, Hungary's government and opposition have failed to muster the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to replace a communist-era decree giving the state executive sweeping powers over radio and TV. Government resentment

The coalition parties, with a 57 percent parliamentary majority, say the media harbors former Communists responsible for the government's low popularity. The parties favor giving Prime Minister Jozsef Antall wide discretion in hiring and firing media chiefs.

Opposition leaders want media matters decided by a broader parliamentary consensus. Last year prime minister Antall ordered both media heads fired three times, but president Arpad Goncz vetoed each attempt.

President Goncz's authority stems from a law passed shortly after the country's first free elections in 1990. Antall challenged the president's right to such a veto before Hungary's constitutional court. Both interpreted the court ruling as a victory.

The court also held unconstitutional the only other measure explicitly governing TV and radio - a 1974 decree giving the government's council of ministers control over radio and TV.

But the parties could not agree on a law replacing control of the media. On Dec. 31, after two years of wrangling, they could not agree whether a simple, or a two-thirds, majority was needed for passage. None of the 386 MPs voted for the bill.

Six days later, fearing "an unknown future without a good, honest media law," television president Hankiss submitted his resignation. So did radio president Csaba Gombar.

Hankiss and state television have faced growing government pressure in the past month.

* On Dec. 9, hours after Hungarian President Goncz refused Prime Minister Antall's latest request to fire Hankiss, Antall ordered the TV boss "suspended" and barred from his office. The same happened the next day to two Hankiss subordinates, and police searched their homes.

Government officials base the moves on suspected "financial crimes" but have rejected opposition demands to make public the evidence. The case will be decided by government ministers in closed sessions starting Jan 14.

* The parliament on Dec. 17 passed a motion to place the TV budget under Antall's control.

* Hankiss' acting replacement, Gabor Nahlik, instructed TV news editors Dec. 29 not to report on Hankiss' case without Nahlik's written permission. The restrictions on TV coverage, Mr. Nahlik says, are "to secure [Hankiss'] presumption of innocence."

The government's chief media negotiator, Tamas Katona, says the suspensions are "absolutely independent from the media war" and that evidence must remain sealed during the probes to protect the procedure. Coalition members say the budget transfer was fully democratic.

But Free Democrat parliamentarian Miklos Haraszti, the opposition's chief media negotiator, says events reflect a "classic, unrefined power instinct." His party has asked the constitutional court to rule whether the budget transfer breaks a vaguely worded constitutional guarantee of press freedom. Hankiss will also challenge his suspension in court. Party congress

Some observers say the government moves are designed to heal a rift within the Hungarian Democratic Forum (HDF), the largest coalition party, before its Jan. 23 party congress.

"The government is having to make ever-costlier concessions to extremist factions within the HDF in order to preserve party unity," said a Western diplomat, speaking anonymously.

Tension within the party has grown since the leader of its right wing, HDF presidium member Istvan Csurka, published an essay in August demanding steps to counter what he calls a red-dominated media. The party (whose popularity hit a low of 11 percent last month, a Gallup poll says) could boost its image "only if it had its own press and media which breathed together with the government," Csurka wrote.

Mr. Csurka welcomed the resignations. "They have controlled the radio and TV of the old system, only repainted," he told Hungarian TV Dec. 6. "The era does not allow this."

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