Hungary's media companies were up in arms Thursday over a proposed tax on advertising that industry insiders said would cripple the sector as well as tighten the government's hold on the press.
Major newspapers were planning black front pages and commercial TV channels planned to go off the air for 15 minutes on Thursday evening in protest at the proposed bill, which would slap a tax of up to 40 percent on ad revenue.
In total, over 60 companies, including radio stations and websites were due to take part in the action, which was to continue into Friday.
Under the bill, even companies like Facebook and Google could be taxed, according to Laszlo Simon, an MP from the ruling Fidesz party who submitted the proposal to parliament Monday.
The Hungarian Advertising Association (MRSZ), which organised the blackout protest, warned that if approved, the proposal would "cripple" the media.
The tax would put many media and advertising companies out of business and didn't make economic sense, MRSZ president Zsolt Urban told AFP.
"For every 10 forints (0.03 euro cent, $0.04) spent on advertising, an estimated 47 forints go into Hungary's economy."
"The tax revenue that will be brought in is insignificant in terms of the overall state budget, and will be dwarfed by the negative impact on GDP," he said.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief-of-staff Janos Lazar reacted on Wednesday by saying: "Everyone should pay their fair share, including the media."
The tax would be the latest in a series of so-called "special" levies passed by Orban's government since 2010 on sectors typically dominated by foreign companies -- like banking, energy, retail and telecommunications.
- Press freedom 'trampled' -
For Attila Mong, a media analyst with Mertek, a think tank, the tax was part of an ongoing effort by the government to tame the media.
In 2011 Orban brought in new media laws, set up a powerful regulatory authority and centralised public media channels -- moves slammed by the rights body OSCE as potentially having a "chilling" effect on press freedom.
"Fidesz now wants to push out foreign media companies like (German-owned TV channel) RTL Klub, whose news editorial team has managed to remain critical of the government," Mong told AFP.
According to industry calculations, RTL Klub -- Hungary's largest commercial media company -- would be the only company to pay the top 40-percent rate, providing about half of the total forecast tax intake.
"RTL has been in Hungary for 17 years and... it has the best reputation of being the most independent media from all political circles," RTL Hungary's chairman Andreas Rudas reacted in an emailed statement to AFP Thursday.
"This tax... clearly targets RTL first and wants to challenge our independence but also generally the freedom of speech in Hungary," he said.
Surprisingly, right-wing and normally pro-government media organs like the Magyar Nemzet newspaper and Hir TV channel also joined Thursday's protest.
"It seems (the government) really does want to trample press freedoms after all," Magyar Nemzet's deputy editor Peter Csermely wrote.
Lazar, who has been tipped as a possible successor to Orban as prime minister, however brushed off this criticism.
"Democracy is staying in Hungary, even if you have to pay taxes," he told journalists.
The tax protest comes just days after allegations surfaced that the editor of a popular Hungarian news website, Origo, was sacked for publishing a story that embarrassed Orban's government.
The move prompted other news websites to publish statements of solidarity and around 1,000 people, including many journalists, marched to the Hungarian parliament in protest at the editor's removal.