Hungarian state TV employees on hunger strike

AP News
Posted: Dec 16, 2011 2:10 PM
Hungarian state TV employees on hunger strike

One of three Hungarian journalists staging a hunger strike said he hopes their protest brings more attention _ and an end _ to acts of censorship and increasing government meddling in state-funded media.

A media law that went into effect in Hungary on Jan. 1 has been severely criticized by international observers, and several modifications were made after complaints from the European Union because of its potential ability to restrict press freedoms.

One heavily criticized aspect was the centralization of the state media's news service, which eliminated much duplication among Hungarian state radio and TV stations, but also led to charges that the government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants to keep closer control over its contents.

"There is constant pressure from every government to try to influence public media ... but what this current group is doing is unprecedented," said Balazs Nagy Navarro, a foreign affairs editor at Hungary's state TV who has been drinking only water, tea and other liquids since Saturday.

"Stories are manipulated daily and (state television) has become a mouthpiece for the government," he said.

The hunger strike came after images of Zoltan Lomnici, a former head of Hungary's Supreme Court who is believed to have fallen out of favor with the government, were pixelated beyond recognition on state television two weeks ago.

That manipulation of the images angered state media reporters who want the service to stay impartial.

Compared to a country such as China, where content on state media is tightly controlled, journalists who work for state media in Hungary have been used to a relatively wide degree of independence and have not shied away from covering negative news about the government.

On Thursday, the director of Hungary's state news service, Gabor Elo, was fired and Daniel Papp, the editor-in-chief, reassigned. Last week, four other state media employees were reprimanded in the case.

Nagy Navarro welcomed the announcements, but said other senior officials should be ousted because of the constant meddling into journalists' work. As he spoke outside state television headquarters, supporters stopped by with bags full of fruit juice and soft drinks.

Two civilian activists have also joined the three journalists on the hunger strike. Nagy Navarro, who also leads a trade union of media workers, said he would continue the hunger strike as long as doctors allow him to or until more top editors are fired.

A spokesman for state media said the hunger strike had turned into a political act and that no other personnel changes were planned.

"We continue to study and analyze how to reform and improve the system of news production and news stories to avoid repeating such serious errors," said Laszlo Szabo, communications director of MTVA, the state Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund.

Szabo said the case of the pixelated former judge was an "unfortunate combination of circumstances," including "many professional mistakes ... and the rushed pace" of televison news. He said Elo would no longer be employed by any state-owned media, while Papp was stripped of one of his two posts and will remain as head of the documentary division.