Checking the facts

Research fellow Joost van Beek talks about the CMCS project investigating Hungarian media laws and European free-press norms.

Whatever anyone might say, the phenomenon of being at the right place at the right time should never be underestimated. Sometimes it is a crucial element to a story. And sometimes this place and time is an ordinary pub in Budapest city centre late at night.

Joost van Beek is a research fellow at the Center for Media and Communication Studies (CMCS) at Central European University. Originally from The Hague in the Netherlands, before joining CEU in September 2009, Joost worked at the EU Monitoring and Advocacy Program of the Open Society Institute, an international non-governmental organisation. And currently he is working on a project concerning the Hungarian media laws.

“In a previous life, a long time ago, I studied what was called Russia and Eastern European Studies, which is 20th century history and politics, society, literature, a bit of everything. Political, party political, governmental aspects of this region have always interested me. So last year when the Hungarian government started implementing these far-reaching changes in the national media and the regulatory and legislative framework, we decided we had to do something with it.”

Hungary assumed presidency in the European Union on 1 January 2011, the very same day the third controversial media law came into effect. This again sparked a significant number of complaints and criticism throughout Europe and the world: it was “a public relations failure of colossal proportions.” It also prompted the CMCS to approach Open Society Foundations with a two-fold research project in the spring of 2011.

“First, for a long time what I did was just make a giant directory of information, I started just creating a page with links. With so much coming out already in June-July last year, when the first laws came through, we wanted to keep track of all news stories that appeared, also in the foreign media, and especially all the reports that have been prepared by different organisations. We wanted to create clarity, make all information more easily available. Data visualisation.”

This website has become the first English language information resource with an interactive timeline detailing the most important events starting from 25 April 2010, the day of the last national elections. All the laws and key documents, such as letters to and from Hungarian politicians can be accessed through the site, as well as a number of civil society responses.

The second stage puts the laws and the situation of the Hungarian media into an international perspective, as it concerns one of the central arguments of the Hungarian government.

“One of the government’s main defences in response to the criticisms is that nothing in the Hungarian media laws is new or unprecedented. It has its equivalents in other EU member states, so all of this outrage is disproportionate.”

To illustrate this, the government had documents compiled in January 2011 to list and describe specific examples from other countries that had similar legislations. “These documents were the ones we wanted to fact-check. Are they correct, accurate and complete? Do they cite the right bodies, right regulations, right laws? Do they accurately reflect the text of the law? Do they accurately respond to criticisms?”

To ensure that they take the full picture into account, CMCS recruited reporters in each of the countries mentioned in the document (that is almost all EU member states) to make surveys, check laws and investigate the system and workings of the media. The research group identified seven main issues of controversy and grouped the regulations and criticisms accordingly. Introductory chapters and evaluations were written and on 4 January 2012 the research will take its first form: an online report, a pdf file downloadable from the CMCS website. Later on, it will be transformed into an interactive website in which individual chapters and issues can be accessed separately.

The conclusions are quite disturbing. “The documents are very flawed, in many cases the bodies which they refer to have been renamed, reorganised, or simply they do not exist any more. There are outright errors. And even when they are correct, they do not necessarily prove the point that the Hungarian government wants them to.”

“However, it is quite valuable, the Hungarian government had done a service by providing examples of other countries with also problematic aspects. There are ways in which Viktor Orbán has a point in saying we are being judged. However, some critics say it is almost an exercise of examples of bad practice, where the worst are cherry-picked. In many EU member states individual parts of the Hungarian media law are in place similarly, but for each example there is great number of other member states where such legislations do not exist and would be unacceptable. And there is no other country where all these examples are in place all together.”

The publication sheds light on the government’s tendency of doing a sketchy job, characterised by decisions and statements that do not seem to be thought through. For many, it could be a very eye-opening read. “The whole thing, not all that many people will read it. But they will include some important people, we have been in contact with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe.”

One question remains: can any kind of turn of events be expected as a result of such a research publication? “I’ll be very Hungarian about this, we don’t expect much to change any time soon and we certainly don’t expect much to improve. First and foremost, we are a research institute, not an advocacy organisation. We don’t organise demonstrations. We bring information, and we digest and synthesize what we find and document it.”

Let’s just then hope all that information will find its way into the right hands at the right time.

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