Page last updated at 17:04 GMT, Thursday, 9 February 2012

Civil Liberties Committee

Hungary's deputy prime minister has defended his country's constitutional changes, during an evidence session with the European Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee.

The governing Fidsez party - elected with a two-thirds majority in April 2010 - has implemented a series of laws and a new constitution which came into force on 1 January in Hungary and which have encountered widespread criticism.

These include mandatory early retirement of judges, a new commission to oversee the media and changes to the structure of the country's central bank.

Tibor Navracsics told MEPs on 9 February 2012 that the Hungarian government had already taken on board concerns raised by the Council of Europe and the European Commission.

He said the media law had already been amended so that it did not cover certain elements of the print media and that he was awaiting approval of the amended law by the Council of Europe.

He also insisted that Hungary retained a system of checks and balances - despite concerns from MEPs including Austrian Green MEP Ulrike Lunacek that a number of organisations such as the Court of Auditors and the media council were being filled with party political appointees.

'Political manipulation'

Specific concerns were raised over the new media law, which critics say is an attempt to censor the press.

Under the law, a government appointed "media council" has the power to impose fines for violating "public interest, public morals or order".

The EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes - who has responsibility for media issues - said she was "gravely concerned" by the situation in Hungary.

She claimed that the law "goes beyond EU norms and practices".

Ms Kroes challenged the Hungarian deputy prime minister directly, saying: "Will you implement any of the concrete recommendations of the Council of Europe?"

"If these proposals do not run counter to the constitution of Hungary, then yes", replied Mr Navracsics.

Ms Kroes suggested that this was at odds with earlier statements by the deputy prime minister.

However, he replied: "I beg your pardon madam. It's exactly the same thing. I'm an MP and I swore allegiance to the Hungarian constitution. The Council of Europe cannot impose anything that runs counter to our constitution. Full stop."

Maltese MEP Simon Busuttil from the EPP group - to which the Fidesz party is aligned - warned against "political manipulation" of the situation in Hungary.

"This committee should not turn itself into a public tribunal on Hungary," he stated.

He was broadly backed by new British Conservative MEP Anthea McIntyre who said that any evaluation of the Hungarian constitution should be carried out "with fairness and balance".

However MEPs from opposing groups re-iterated criticisms of the Hungarian government.

Hungarian socialist Kinga Göncz questioned whether the new laws had been adopted democratically, given the two-thirds parliamentary majority enjoyed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government.

The Commission has called for changes to the laws and given Hungary one month to respond to its concerns.

The following witnesses also gave evidence to the committee:

• Françoise Le Ball, Director General for Justice at the European Commission

• Morten Kjærum, Director of the European Agency for Fundamental Rights

• Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on freedom of the media

The second part of the committee hearing can be seen here.

A disclaimer on the use of simultaneous interpretations, on the European Parliament's website.

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