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Hungary unmoved by EU criticism over media law

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Hungary unmoved by EU criticism over media law

Photo Hungary EU Presidency

(BUDAPEST) - Hungary's government insisted Tuesday it would not bow to outside pressure and rethink its disputed media law, even after the European Commission expressed concerns and said it would sanction Budapest if necessary -- even during the nation's EU presidency.

"It isn't necessary to change a Hungarian law just because it is subject to criticism from abroad," Zoltan Kovacs, state secretary for communication, told national radio.

"Before criticising, let's wait and see how this law works. We are confident it will be up to the task," he added.

On Monday, just 48 hours after Hungary assumed the rotating six-month EU presidency, the European Union said it had "doubts" on whether the controversial new press law complied with the rules on media freedom in the 27-member bloc.

In a letter to Budapest in late December, European Commission vice-president Neelie Kroes voiced "concerns" and asked for "clarification" on the text, a Commission spokesman said.

Budapest will only respond to Brussels' criticism later this week as the text of the law has not yet been entirely translated into English, Kovacs said.

But the European Commission Tuesday emphasised it would not hesitate to sanction Hungary if the law is found to violate EU rules.

"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.

He added that EU legal experts would scrutinise the media law once they had received the translation.

But an EU source said the 2007 EU directive concerned in the matter 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.

In any event, the piece of Hungarian legislation would be on the agenda of talks between Hungary's government and the European Commission on Friday, the state secretary for European affairs Eniko Gyori said.

"We are preparing for a normal, honest and clear dialogue," she told journalists Tuesday, adding that the Commission would be given a full and official translation of the legal text.

The disputed legislation, which came into force on January 1 just as Hungary took over the EU presidency, 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.

In recent weeks, the media law has drawn widespread criticism from opposition politicians and journalists in Hungary, as well as from the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE), Amnesty International, the European parliament and several European governments, such as Germany and France.

Aside from the media debate, Hungary has meanwhile come under fire over a "crisis" tax, which has angered a number of major European firms.

The European Commission said Monday it was investigating whether that too was in compliance with the bloc's regulations.

The new tax was introduced in October on the telecommunications, energy and retail sectors for a three-year period as a way of helping replenish state coffers and bring down the public deficit.

Along with the media debate, this has already tarnished Hungary's EU presidency, even before EU leaders descend on Budapest for the inauguration celebration on Thursday.

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