Hungary has dropped dramatically in an annual press freedom index after introducing media laws that have provoked criticism across Europe. But European Union countries continued to dominate the top places in the list.
Under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's leadership Hungary slipped 17 places to 40th in the rankings, compiled each year by the campaign group Reporters Without Borders. Yesterday Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a former president of Latvia who is leading the EU's independent high level group on press freedom, said the Hungarian press suffered from an "extraordinary concentration of power".
"Hungary and its leaders would be wise to reconsider the laws and regulations that they have passed so as not to stand in contravention of various fundamental principles," she said. Orbán was forced to tone down reforms last year following EU criticism but Vike-Freiberga warned that a government appointed authority that nominates the heads of public broadcasters, interprets regulations and imposes fines, still had too much power.
Publishing its report yesterday, Reporters Without Borders
suggested the clampdown could have repercussions around Europe. It said the "precedent set by this legislation, adopted with little comment from other EU member states, has further dented the European model's credibility". Orbán already faces possible EU sanctions over constitutional reforms that many have claimed threaten the independence of the central bank and judiciary.
Despite Hungary's declining press freedom, it still finished higher in the rankings than a series of EU countries including Romania, Latvia, Malta, Italy, Greece and Bulgaria, as well as future member state Croatia. But although Italy fell from 49th to 61st place, it had "turned the page on several years of conflict of interest" with the resignation of media mogul Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister, the report said.
However Bulgaria, in 80th, and Greece, in 70th, again finished bottom of the European pile. The study said: "Targeted attacks and death threats against journalists marked the past year in Bulgaria, where concerns about print media pluralism grew. In Greece, the economic crisis highlighted the fragility of its media while photographers and cameramen covering demonstrations were exposed to conditions resembling war zones."
Meanwhile Finland maintained its position at the top of the list, sharing first place with Norway. It was joined in the top 10 by Estonia, the Netherlands, Austria, Luxembourg and Denmark. But although Estonia placed third, fellow Baltic states Latvia and Lithuania dropped significantly to 50th and 30th places respectively because of "grotesque court rulings and increased interference by the security services". Conversely here was 10-place improvement for Slovakia in 25th, thanks to the departure of Roberto Fico as prime minister, described by Reporters Without Borders as "heavy handed in his methods and crude in his language with journalists".
The organisation lamented the lack of progress in France, which rose only a few places from 44th to 38th, and Spain, which stayed in 39th spot. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, slipped nine places to 28th against the "extraordinary backdrop" of the News of the World
phone hacking scandal. The UK "caused concern with its approach to the protection of privacy and its response to the London riots" and also "clings to a surreal law that allows the entire world to come and sue news media before its courts", the report said.