Free press advocate pleased that Hungary is scrapping idea to plant spies in newsrooms

WARSAW, Poland – A leading media advocate has welcomed Hungary’s decision to abandon a plan to plant spies in newsrooms but said she remains disturbed that Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government would even contemplate the “Orwellian” idea.

Hungary’s Interior Ministry was preparing an amendment to a security law that could have forced media to add secret agents from national security services to their staffs. The government on Thursday backed away from the idea following an outcry from Hungarian media, though other industries will still be affected.

Dunja Mijatovic, media freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said leaving journalists out of the law is a “good decision.”

“Just the idea of having secret agents present in a newsroom is something that I find outrageously dangerous,” she told The Associated Press by phone from Vienna. “It’s an Orwellian practice.”

She said the proposal comes as many governments in the West are eroding freedom of expression, often in the name of security.

“It leaves a bitter taste. There is a feeling that as a society we are not moving in a good direction when we think about doing something like this,” she said.

The ministry proposal originally included the media in a long list of institutions and companies — including energy, postal and weapons firms — that would employ secret agents who are qualified for “cover” jobs if required by the government.

The Hungarian Publishers’ Association, which represents more than 40 of Hungary’s largest media companies, protested Wednesday and said that it would “harshly interfere with and damage” media freedom and would facilitate censorship.

Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs later said that while it was “unavoidable for reasons of national security” that secret agents work, for example, at mobile phone service providers, it was a misunderstanding that the law would also apply to the media.