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Hungary seeks to defuse tension over media law

Hungary's prime minister said Friday he wants to defuse political tensions generated by the country's contentious new media law, as a group of prominent activists accused him of trying to dismantle the country's young democracy.

Viktor Orban said that because of the international outcry over what many say is a too-restrictive law he was expecting a "stormy meeting" in the EU parliament on Jan. 19, when Hungary presents the program of its new six-month term as head of the Council of the European Union.

"We want to diminish the political weight of this conflict," Orban said during a meeting of his government with the EU's executive Commission headed by Jose Manuel Barroso. "We don't want it to hold back the success of ... Hungary's EU presidency."

The new media law greatly expands the state's power to monitor and penalize private news outlets, including on the Internet, and publications deemed to be unbalanced or offensive in their coverage may face large fines. It went into effect on Jan. 1, the same day Hungary took over the rotating EU presidency.

Since winning a two-thirds parliamentary majority in April elections, Orban's party has modified the Constitution several times to fit its political aims and taken numerous disputed measures — including limiting the powers of the country's top court and naming party loyalists to key watchdog positions for extraordinarily long terms.

On Friday, several Hungarian and foreign former anti-communist dissidents expressed their dismay at the concentration of power implemented by Orban's government, appealing to the EU to take action.

"Just 20 years after communism collapsed, Hungary's government, though elected democratically, is misusing its legislative majority to methodically dismantle democracy's checks and balances, to remove constitutional constraints, and to subordinate to the will of the ruling party all branches of power, independent institutions, and the media," they said an open letter addressed to the leading EU institutions, and the bloc's governments and political parties.

The letter was issued by, among others, former Hungarian president Arpad Goncz, former Czech president Vaclav Havel and Polish newspaper editor Adam Michnik.

Officials from Germany, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, among others, have expressed dismay about the future of press freedom in Hungary.

On Thursday, Orban went on the offensive, insisting that Hungary would change its laws only if its critics did the same. But he seemed to be softening his stance, telling reporters Friday that the country would take into account the political repercussions of the law.

"We are monitoring its practical application and if any of the political concerns are verified ... we are ready to remedy them," Orban said during a news conference with Barroso. He added that Hungary was awaiting the Commission's position on the media law's compliance with EU rules.

Barroso said Orban had assured him that "adjustments would be made" if the Commission found any aspects of Hungary's media law out of sync with EU values.

"I really welcome the fact that the prime minister is ready to consider changing the law in case ... its implementation shows that some concerns could be justified," Barroso said, stressing the importance of "political perceptions."

While making mention of Hungary's efforts to rid itself of past totalitarian regimes, Barroso acknowledged that the dispute about the media law had blemished Hungary's image.

"I am myself fully confident in Hungary's democracy and rule of law," Barroso said. "It's important also that (Orban) take all the necessary steps for this to be clear in Hungary and outside Hungary."

The Socialist Party, Hungary's biggest opposition group, said Thursday that it would ask the Constitutional Court to strike down the whole media law because the legislation is so flawed that it could not be amended.