By Arshad Mohammed
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced concern on Thursday about democratic freedoms in Hungary and said essential checks and balances should be strengthened.
Opponents of the center-right government say it has undermined press freedoms, curbed the powers of the country's top constitutional court and passed a constitution that may entrench its influence after its term ends in 2014.
"We... talked very openly about preserving the democratic institutions of Hungary and making sure that they continue to grow and strengthen, including providing essential checks and balances," Clinton said at a news conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban standing at her side.
"As friends of Hungary we expressed our concerns and particularly call for a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press and governmental transparency," she added as she began a three-day trip to Budapest, Vilnius and Madrid.
Clinton said she discussed with the Hungarian prime minister a wide range of issues including the constitutional court, the media law and also Hungary's new constitution.
"I think throughout the process of implementing the constitution and the accompanying cardinal laws it is important - and certainly the Prime Minister made that very clear to me - that he is committed to ensuring that Hungary is very true to its democratic traditions to protect individual liberties, maintain freedom of the press and the judiciary and ensure checks and balances," she added.
Hungary's government -- which took power in May 2010 -- passed a new media law late last year which came under sharp criticism within the EU, and Hungary had to modify some aspects of the legislation.
In April the government also passed a new constitution which critics said would cement its powers further, and tie the hands of future governments in key areas of policy.
Speaking earlier in the day, Clinton also raised the treatment of the Roma, a minority group that activists say has suffered a sharp rise in violent attacks in Hungary in recent years.
Clinton praised Hungary for using its presidency of the European Union to push for reforms "that would guarantee Roma people the same rights and opportunities their fellow citizens enjoy" but she suggested that more needs to be done, describing the group as "Europe's largest disenfranchised minority."
The U.S. Secretary of State made the remarks as she took part in a ceremony to inaugurate the Tom Lantos Institute, a pro-democracy group named for the late Tom Lantos, a Hungarian-born human rights advocate and former congressman.
From Budapest, Clinton travels to Vilnius to take part in a gathering of the Community of Democracies group that seeks to promote democratic freedoms around the world.
Aides said two countries that would be on her mind there are Belarus, the former Soviet republic where President Alexander Lukashenko has held power since 1994, and Ukraine, where Washington is worried about democratic "backsliding."
Belarus police on Wednesday arrested scores of people protesting against Lukashenko, whose authoritarian rule has led to sanctions by Western governments.
"There could well be significant protests and further violence ... We are watching that very closely," said a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"We will be putting a spotlight on Belarus. We also have concerns about backsliding in Ukraine and we have continual engagement with the government of Ukraine to express our concerns there," the official added.
Clinton ends her trip in Madrid on Saturday, where she will meet Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez for talks on Afghanistan, Libya and the economic crisis in Europe.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)