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Brussels pledges action if Hungary law violates rules

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(BRUSSELS) - The European Commission said Tuesday it would not hesitate to sanction Hungary should its media law be found in violation of EU rules -- even during the nation's six-month EU presidency.

"If there's an infringement of community law, the Commission will launch proceedings and the fact Hungary presides the European Union will have no bearing," Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly said.

The EU executive, which deals with the bloc's daily business, has notified Budapest by letter that it has "doubts" over the country's controversial media law that came into effect on January 1, the same day Hungary took the EU helm.

The Commissioner in charge of the issue, Neelie Kroes, wrote to the Hungarian authorities querying whether the law properly interpreted a 2007 EU regulation -- Television Without Frontiers Directive -- once transcribed into national law.

Kroes, who has not yet had a response to her December 23 note asking for clarification, will be in Budapest on Thursday ahead of a meeting between the entire European Commission and the Hungarian government.

Bailly said EU legal experts would scrutinise the media law once they had received the translation.

"At this stage we are in talks with the Hungarian government and following clear procedures," he said.

"But either it is in compliance with community law or there are doubts on its compliance and the Commission meets to decide to launch proceedings with a letter of warning," he added.

The contested legislation gives a new regulatory authority, the NMHH, the right to impose fines of up to 200 million forint (720,000 euros, 950,000 dollars) for material that is considered offensive.

The authority -- headed by a close ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban -- also has the right to inspect documents and force journalists to reveal sources in issues related to national security.

But an EU source said the 2007 directive did not provide for sanctions and was targeted at audiovisual and digital media, as well as e-mail, not the printed press or news agencies.

Kroes also expressed "doubts" on the independence of the NMHH but as its members were appointed by parliament this could remain a political issue.

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