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You were probably all still busy hanging up your Christmas decorations when I commented in no uncertain terms in the days leading up to Christmas on the concerns about Hungary’s media law, comments which were almost certainly not welcomed by everyone in Budapest. However, I believed it’s necessary to react early on when you have concerns. You don’t have to make a final pronouncement but you do have to ask questions and they must be satisfactorily answered by the other side. It they are not answered satisfactorily then perhaps something has to change. That has become clear.
I would like to thank everyone, you included, who have placed the issue we are discussing here today in a larger context. The larger context is marked by what we admire about Hungary and what we owe to it. I’m referring here to the unbridled yearning for freedom which manifested itself in Hungary before any other country when a large-scale revolt broke out. That Hungary allowed Germans to cross the border into Austria and thus gain their freedom also bears testimony to this. That was a tremendous achievement. We always said during the nineties that we would never forget what you did for us. After a while, Hungarian friends told me they couldn’t hear it anymore. You have to be concrete, they said. You can’t always just talk. The time has come now to point out to Hungarians, who are now part of our community of enlightened European democracies based on the rule of law, that we are concerned about a possibly problematic development. But we have to do this in an appropriate manner given the special relationship between Germany and Hungary.
As has already been stated, a strong and successful Hungarian EU Presidency is in our interest, especially at a challenging time for the European Union. In view of the course mapped out last year, it’s now crucial that we show determination, determination in implementing European Council decisions, for example to make our currency crisis-proof, determination to continue on the sometimes very painful path of consolidation, including budget consolidation, and determination to embark upon new paths towards deepening European integration. That’s why the EU Presidency is important.
However, an EU Presidency is not a medal you can pin on your lapel. Rather, it requires thorough preparation and a lot of hard work. We wish our Hungarian friends every success with these gruelling tasks and we’ll do everything we can to help them.
The EU Presidency brings a special responsibility with it. Despite the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, the country holding the EU Presidency is the voice of Europe. In the first half of this year, Hungary will speak on behalf of the entire European Union, on behalf of us all. It’s therefore easy to see why attention is focused on the Presidency at a time like this. It can’t be in anyone’s interest for there to be a shadow over a Presidency which was so well prepared, a shadow which is eclipsing all its efforts to date.
Europe stands for unity in diversity: a diversity where people live together in a spirit of tolerance which allows pluralist views and provides special protection for the rights of minorities. That was the essence of the message put forward by Chancellor Merkel in her first speech to the European Parliament at the outset of Germany’s EU Presidency in 2007. We should still be guided by this ideal today.
We in Europe are also united in a community of values which we have undertaken to honour: freedom, human rights, the rule of law. These are the pillars of the European Union. We struggled to gain these values a long time ago and they now form the foundation on which Europe is based. And one thing is clear: freedom of the press is a fundamental value in this context.
Not standing up for freedom of the press would mean jeopardizing this foundation. We would lose credibility, especially in the dialogue with those states which we are trying to convince to adopt these values.
When there is reason to believe that freedom of the press is being undermined in a European Union member state by a move to control the content of media output, even if it is only in the form of anticipatory self-censorship, then there are grounds for serious concern in the Union as a whole, especially when this country holds the Presidency. The objection we’re raising here concerns a law which has already entered into force and is thus universally valid in its scope of application. Our objection doesn’t concern possible concrete applications. Incidentally, anyone who sees this differently has a rather peculiar understanding of the rule of law. The German Government has therefore taken a clear stand. We’ve expressed our hope that those parts of the media law which are incompatible with fundamental values will be amended.
Nor do I believe we should allow the Hungarian law to be compared to laws adopted in the Bundestag or in our Land parliaments. We would be doing ourselves an injustice.
I took the trouble today to re-read the media law of North Rhine-Westphalia very carefully. Between 1966 and 2008, it was reduced from 27 to a friendly 17 paragraphs. The original version of the Hungarian media law, in contrast, is a truly hefty tome. It’s no wonder that not everyone has read the translations yet. I really can’t find anything in the media law of North Rhine-Westphalia to criticize with regard to the subject-matter we are discussing here today.
We have to be honest with ourselves. I don’t think it’s appropriate to direct such accusations against our colleagues from North Rhine-Westphalia, no matter which parliamentary group they belong to.
I would like to make it clear that individual elements of the Hungarian media law may be found in various laws of the European Union and that they may even make sense there. For instance, I take data protection very seriously. The data protection regulations in the North Rhine-Westphalia law have been criticized; I can’t understand that at all. Only the cumulation of individual regulations in a law can give rise to reservations or aggravate problems.
I would like to outline some of our concerns in concrete terms. They include the wide-ranging powers of the newly created media council to control the content of media output, the one-sided appointments to this body for the not inconsiderable period of nine years, the obligation to reveal sources enshrined in the law, a very fundamental aspect which affects the freedom of journalists, the guidelines regarding content which are defined by numerous vague legal concepts and coupled with a wide range of sanctions, as well as the obligation placed on public broadcasters to take the news from one single state news agency.
Our advice to our good friends from Hungary is to work closely with the Commission and the OSCE to dispel any doubts. Yesterday, the OSCE – through its Representative on Freedom of the Media – published a first assessment which largely corresponded to our own cautious analysis. I believe this is not only of special importance in the light of the authority which the OSCE derived from the process of liberation in Central and Eastern Europe. We are committed not only to the principles of the European Union but also those of the OSCE.
In the course of the next few days, the Commission will ask questions about those points where it sees a need for improvement. In all honesty, we have to approach this review with an open mind, for this is a very difficult legal issue. It’s certainly too early to draw any final conclusions. However, the Commission must ask the right questions.
We’re confident that substantial improvements can be achieved here. At the same time, of course, we recognize it will not be easy to find the right yardstick to assess the law. Such an encroachment on the freedom of the press would, after all, constitute more than a violation of secondary law. It would affect the very core of our fundamental values and rights. It must therefore also be dealt with from this angle, that is to say primary law.
Here, too, the Commission – the guardian of the Treaties – must act. Incidentally, compliance with these fundamental values was also a requirement for accession to the European Union.
Ladies and gentlemen, you can see that this Government has recognized the magnitude and significance of this problem, especially as domestic developments in Hungary are not only dominated solely by this legislative project. As close and committed friends of Hungary, we are ready and willing to provide assistance. We ask our friends in Hungary not to misunderstand this offer as an attack against Hungary. This is about providing very concrete help to a partner and friend in the European Union with a view to avoiding negative developments and averting any damage being done to Hungary or the European Union.
The ball is now in the Commission’s court. I’m confident that the Commission will meet its obligation to carefully analyse the situation in full. And I welcome the readiness expressed by Foreign Minister Martonyi to take the advice of good friends.
Thank you very much.