On 5 April 2001 Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, reminded the Hungarian authorities of the need to guarantee independent public media before the country’s entry into the European Union. The opposition parties are in effect no longer represented on the boards of directors of national radio and television since the government strengthened its control of the public media in October 2000 by ensuring a de facto majority on the regulatory board. In disagreement with the new composition modalities of this board, the opposition parties decided not to take their seats on it. By naming Karoly Mendreczky, a former officer in the Federation of Young Democrats (FIDESz), which also produced Prime Minister Viktor Orban, as president of state television on 12 July 2001, the feeling of control by those in power of the most influential media in the country has been reinforced. Hungarian President Ferenc Madl moreover expressed his concern about the developing situation of press freedom in Hungary by refusing to sign on 12 June the new law on the media prepared upon an initiative by the FIDESz and passed in parliament at the end of May. President Madl referred the matter to the Constitutional Court, feeling that the text, and in particular its very restrictive provisions on the right of reply, threatened the freedom of information. On 4 December the Constitutional Court rejected the law, judging that it "would limit the press’s free speech in a disproportionate way".
Pressure and obstruction
On 5 and 6 May 2001 the journalists of Magyar Hirlap, one of the country’s oldest and most influential newspapers, were refused access to the ruling party’s (FIDESz) conference in Szeged (in the south). The party’s spokesman, Mr. Attila Farkas, confirmed that "no reporter from the Magyar Hirlap would be authorised to attend any event or demonstration" by the FIDESz. When a journalist criticised him for this measure, the party’s head press officer responded that "the journalists of Magyar Hirlap only have to read the press releases from the official Hungarian press agency (MTI) to write their articles". FIDESz’s reaction occurred in the wake of an article appearing in the Magyar Hirlap entitled "No One Wants the ’elimination’ of Viktor Orban and Laslo Koever (FIDESz’s president until 6 May) from political life". This article referred to an interview done a week earlier by a journalist of the RTL-Klub network with a professional killer. In the interview the network’s journalist asked, "What would be your asking price to assassinate the Hungarian Prime Minister?" The professional killer responded without any hesitation. The network acknowledged the question’s "bad taste" and offered its apologies. Nonetheless two of RTL-Klub’s directors were forced to resign following pressure applied by the authorities. Magyar Hirlap’s editor-in-chief also apologised in an editorial for the word "elimination". This did not however satisfy the FIDESz’s spokesman, who said that the newspaper would continue to be boycotted "as long as it did not follow RTL-Klub’s example" and fire the person responsible. On 7 May Magyar Hirlap left a blank space on its front page in protest of this pressure. Several other dailies followed suit in solidarity.