Hungary takes on EU presidency amid outcry over media law

Hungary took the helm of the European Union on Saturday as a new law that has sparked concern about media freedom in the country came into force in the teeth of fierce opposition.

The challenges currently facing the 27-nation bloc are daunting: the eurozone debt crisis, the integration of the Roma minority and tough negotiations over the EU’s long-term budget. In an interview published on the EU’s website, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the Hungarian presidency was "good news for Europe" and that "everybody was interested in a strong Europe because it is a source of support and resources for all nations". Among the priorities of the Hungarian presidency, he said, would be increasing the bloc’s economic competitiveness. "A transformation of incredible speed and depth is happening throughout the world; Europe must be able to stand in a much stronger global competition than ever before," Orban said. But as he prepares to tackle the six months ahead, Orban will also be facing tough questions over controversial reforms that have raised hackles both at home and abroad. Orban stormed to power in April when his centre-right Fidesz party won an unprecedented two-thirds parliamentary majority, giving him power to change laws and even the constitution more or less at will. The 47-year-old quickly installed his own allies in almost all key positions of power in the country, including the president, Pal Schmitt.

It is above all a far-reaching media reform that has raised questions about Hungary’s suitability to hold the rotating EU presidency. As part of the changes, a new watchdog was set up to regulate media content and impose fines when rules are not respected. The authority is headed by members of Orban’s Fidesz party and will have the right to inspect media equipment and documents and to force journalists to reveal sources on issues related to national security. As the law came into effect Saturday small private radio station Tilos complained that it had come under investigation for broadcasting a number by US rapper-cum-actor Ice-T. A letter from the NMHH authority, published on the radio’s website, said it opened its investigation in September after the radio ran Ice-T’s "Warning, it’s on" that month at 1730 local. NMHH said the song was "gangster-rap" and "could influence the development of minors in a negative way". Tilos should have broadcast it after 2100, it said. Ice-T, also known for his role as an NYPD detective in "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit", said on twitter "I love it! The world still fears me. Hahaha!" The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has slammed the law as a danger to press freedom and the European Parliament and countries such as Germany have also been openly critical. Among the challenges facing Hungary as EU president, the biggest will perhaps be the eurozone debt crisis. Budapest will also oversee the launch of highly delicate talks about the EU budget for the period from 2014-2020, which looks set to pit rich countries such as Britain, France and Germany against poorer eastern members. Another potentially divisive issue will be the enlargement of Europe’s so-called Schengen area, within which citizens can travel freely without border controls. Romania and Bulgaria, supported by Hungary, hope to join the area in March 2011, but France and Germany have decided to block their membership bids, regarding them as premature. One of the big events of the presidency will be the second Eastern Partnership Summit in Budapest in May. The goal of the partnership, launched by the EU in 2009, is to develop economic and political relations between the bloc and six former Soviet republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Hungary also hopes to advance Croatia’s bid to join the EU. Finally, the integration of Europe’s impoverished Roma minority will also be one of Budapest’s priorities. The issue is very delicate, particularly in Paris, which has come under fire from Brussels over its forcible expulsion of Roma, as well as in Budapest itself following a series of deadly attacks against Roma in recent years. Hungary, an ex-Communist bloc country that joined the EU in 2004, will hand over the presidency to another eastern European nation, Poland, on July 1.

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