Orbán government secures landslide victory spelling further concerns for civic freedoms
The fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic peaked in Hungary at the end of January 2022. On 14th December 2022, the Hungarian Parliament extended the ongoing state of emergency, which was imposed as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, until 1st June 2022. During the state of emergency, the government rules by decree and concerns have been raised by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union that this could lead to further limits on civil rights under the guise of the pandemic.
“In a state of emergency, the government has more room for manoeuvre than usual, because its regulations may deviate from the law, and it also has the option of restricting or suspending the exercise of citizens' fundamental rights more severely than is generally acceptable.”
In a separate development, on 24th February 2022, Russia started a war against Ukraine. Following this, hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in Hungary through the Hungarian-Ukrainian border. The formerly openly pro-Russian Hungarian government has repeatedly declared its intention to “stay out of this war” and although it has shown a much more humanitarian approach in comparison to the previous refugee crisis, it took three weeks for the government to establish a state-run humanitarian centre, after civil society organisations and private citizens had been providing food, care and legal support on the ground for the refugees. Concerns have also been raised that the government would capitalise on the Ukraine crisis for political points ahead of the April 2022 parliamentary election.
Although the governing Fidesz party, which came to power in 2010, faced a united opposition for the first time, it secured a landslide victory on 3rd April 2022. For several years, civil society, and even European institutions, have raised concerns about democratic backsliding in the country, and critics feared that the election process would not meet the minimum standards of fairness. As a result, on 4th February 2022, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) said that a full-scale international election observation mission should be sent to Hungary, a rare recommendation for a European Union member state.
Following the elections, on 4th April 2022, the preliminary findings of the OSCE mission found that the election process was not fair:
“process was marred by the pervasive overlapping of government and ruling coalition’s messaging that blurred the line between state and party, as well as by media bias and opaque campaign funding.”
It noted that Russia’s war against Ukraine “moved to the top of the agenda” and was used by both the ruling and opposition parties to launch personal attacks.
“For voters to be able to make an informed choice, it is fundamental that contestants have equal access to the media and run informative campaigns rather than focus on polarising messaging and personal attacks, as has unfortunately been observed here,” said Kari Henriksen, special co-ordinator and leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission.
The mission also highlighted concerns regarding the increasingly concentrated media market, with “biased and unbalanced news coverage” benefiting the ruling party.
In his victory speech, the Prime Minister took a moment to pinpoint his enemies who had “ganged up” on him and his party, which included “the left at home, the international left everywhere, the bureaucrats in Brussels, all the funds and organisations of the ruling empire, the foreign media, and in the end even the Ukrainian president.”
The election results have led to growing calls for the EU to act against Hungary for violatingdemocratic and civic freedoms. On 5th April 2022, President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen announced that they will be triggering a new EU mechanism which could see Hungary losing EU funds. This move was paved by a landmark ruling issued on 16th February 2022 by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), EU’s top Court, that the EU can cut funding to countries experiencing rule-of-law deterioration, rejecting challenges from Hungary and Poland.
30 minutes after @vonderleyen announces triggering the EU's rule of law mechanism against #Hungary, PM Orbán posts a new photo on Facebook - of himself talking to Donald Trump on the phone.— Viktória Serdült (@viktoriaserdult) April 5, 2022
In other words: no comment from the HU government on the Commission's decision yet. pic.twitter.com/L3hFIfZxZV
New law threatening CSOs enforced
As reported earlier on the CIVICUS Monitor, in May 2021 the Hungarian Parliament adopted a new law that threatens the work of CSOs. The law requires the State Audit Office to report annually on the financial status of NGOs which have a budget that exceeds 20 million forints (55,000 Euros) and “influence the public” and empowers the authority to selectively audit them. The State Audit Office is meant to control and audit the finances of those entities that manage public money or national property. While many NGOs do not accept public funds, they will still need to shoulder the unnecessary administrative burden of the audit, under the guise of ensuring transparency. However, the transparency over the finances of NGOs is already ensured under previous legislation. In addition, the law does not specify what information the State Audit Office should have access to, for example, whether it should be able to process the personal data of individual donors.
Emese Pásztor, head of the Political Freedoms Project at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) told the CIVICUS Monitor that the 2022 work plan of the State Audit Office which was published shows that the state intends to enforce the new legislation, whose purpose is simply to stigmatise Hungarian civil society “and discourage potential small donors, everyday citizens, from supporting the work of human rights defenders and voices critical to the government for fear of losing their livelihood”.
Discrediting independent voices
On 2nd February 2022, Magyar Nemzet, a leading pro-government daily online site, published secret recordings of interviews which were aimed at discrediting civil society and independent media. The recordings, published just two months before the general elections, sought to give credibility to the government’s conspiracy theories on how foreign powers and agents are working against the national interest of Hungary. The interviewees shown in the published clips told the independent press that parts of their conversations from what they thought to be job interviews from a few years ago were taken out of context. In a few hours after the first clip’s publication, the story was widely circulated in pro-government media outlets in Hungary. The Hungarian government also posted the clips on one of its official YouTube channels. This is not the first time intelligence methods have been used to smear civil society activists critical of the government. Shortly before the previous general elections, an Israeli firm, “Black Cube”, partly made up of former Israeli intelligence officers, was tasked to compromise staff members of leading Hungarian NGOs.
It’s election time in Hungary and dirty tricks are back.https://t.co/hisXR4cjZm— Lili Bayer (@liliebayer) February 4, 2022
Lawsuit against blacklisting Figyelő
In early January 2022, 34 people instituted legal action against pro-government weekly Figyelő and its publisher. The lawsuit seeks compensation from the newspaper for presenting NGO activists and people working for the public benefit as mercenaries of "foreign, evil powers in 2018". In a previous lawsuit, Figyelő’s publisher was ordered to pay 500 to 500,000 to two plaintiffs seeking damages. At the time, the court found that the press can, for example, write about which organisations have received financial support from the Open Society Foundation, but that it does not have the right to publish the names of the plaintiffs who work for these organisations who are not involved in public debates and to report completely untrue facts about them. The 34 plaintiffs will be represented in the case by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.
Criminalising help to asylum-seekers breaches EU law
On 16th November 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) found that the Hungarian law (known as the “Stop Soros” law — a reference to liberal American-Hungarian businessman George Soros) which criminalises people who assist or support asylum-seekers, violates EU norms. The CJEU ruling is the latest victory for the European Commission in its years-long battle over migration with the right-wing Fidesz government. The anti-immigration law, passed on 20th June 2018 by the Hungarian Parliament, imposes criminal sanctions on entire organisations and prevents people from applying for asylum if they came to Hungary through a country where their life and freedom were not at risk.
CJEU found that threatening those who help refugees with prison is contrary to EU law which requires asylum-seekers to be able to contact and receive information and legal advice from NGOs. It also found that not allowing people to apply for asylum if they arrived through a safe country also breaches EU law.
“We welcome the judgment. Since the law was passed, the Helsinki Committee has helped 1,800 asylum-seekers. From now on, we can again serve our clients without the threat of prison. We were not intimidated by the threat, and we achieved many of our important legal successes in the shadow of criminal persecution. For example, the Strasbourgand Luxembourg courts found that arbitrary detention in the border transit zones, and indiscriminate and often violent push-backs are against Hungary’s EU and human rights law obligations. Article 353/A needs to be repealed and not sabotage the implementation of this CJEU ruling, as it has done several times already, in breach of the rule of law”, said Márta Pardavi, Hungarian Helsinki Committee co-chair about the CJEU ruling right after the announcement of the verdict.
Reacting to the ruling at a press conference on 21st December 2021, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said: “We will not do anything to change the system of border protection. We will maintain the existing regime, even if the European court ordered us to change it”. If the government doesn't amend or withdraw the controversial legislation “without delay”, the Commission can askthe court to impose financial penalties.
Pegasus spyware scandal
In late January 2022, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) announced that it would launch various legal actions on behalf of six clients targeted with the spyware Pegasus: Brigitta Csikász, Dávid Dercsényi, Dániel Németh and Szabolcs Panyi, all journalists; Adrien Beauduin, a Belgian-Canadian PhD student and activist; and a sixth person who requested anonymity. As reported earlier on the CIVICUS Monitor, critics of the government in Poland and in Hungary were targeted with the surveillance software. Pegasus can infect mobile devices and enable its operators to extract messages, photos and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones.
“It is unacceptable that the operations of the national security services, which are necessarily carried out in secret, should become a tool of oppression rather than a means of protecting citizens,” said Ádám Remport, legal and privacy expert at HCLU.
In a related development, the European Parliament is preparing to launch a committee inquiring into the Pegasus spyware scandal. The committee is expectedto hold public sessions and call for relevant documents and oral and written testimony for a year, starting from April 2022.
Reporting on the pandemic
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the independent press has been banned from reporting from within hospitals. In March 2021, the editors of 28 media outlets appealed to the decision-makers, arguing that the rules must be changed and that the media must be allowed to record in health care facilities. In their open letter, the editors wrote that
“the lack of information has serious consequences. Since the government and the pandemic commission prevent reports being made about the true state of affairs inside our hospitals, many people continue to play down the dangers of the pandemic and do not follow the necessary precautions. This in turn leads to more coronavirus cases and to the worsening of the pandemic.”
This appeal was rejected by the government saying that such a move could lead to the spread of “fake news.”
As a next step, online news portal Telex.hu and HCLU took the government to court on the basis that the order which gives the government’s Department of Human Resources (Emmi) the power to decide who is permitted into health facilities to report disproportionately affected media freedom. On 27th January 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that Emmi could not bar media from reporting from within hospitals, as that power lay with individual hospital directors. However, on 29th January 2022, the governmentpassed a new decree to bypass the ruling. According to the new decree, the Operational Tribunal, responsible for the defence against the pandemic, can decide on press access. The rule came into effect on 5th February 2022.
Reacting to the restrictions on media, the International Press Institute said:
“This government decree is another shocking example of the Hungarian government’s efforts to block media’s access to public health information and hinder the ability of independent media to do their job….In Hungary, however, despite numerous appeals, journalists have repeatedly been barred from visiting hospitals, limiting transparency and leaving reporting from within health facilities to state media, which sorely lack independence and impartiality. There is no other country in the European Union right now which still has such restrictive hospital reporting policies in place as Hungary,” said IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen.
This government decree is a stark example of the length which Fidesz will go to retain control over #COVID19 messaging ahead of the upcoming elections.— IPI-The Global Network for Independent Journalism (@globalfreemedia) February 8, 2022
IPI stands with independent journalists in #Hungary in their demand for the right to access to information. @Telexhu @HCLU pic.twitter.com/aQSjegPHLe
Lack of objectivity in public service media
In 2018, the public service media (or ratherstate media) reported from the press conference held by The Youth Christian Democratic Alliance (IKSZ), the youth affiliate of the junior governing coalition party, Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP). At the press conference, IKSZ repeatedly stated that Menedék - Hungarian Association for Migrants - is "one of the organisations financed by Soros, and they are working to turn Hungary into an immigrant country, to bring migrants into Hungary". In fact, Menedék helps with the social integration of foreigners living legally in Hungary. The untrue facts were communicated a few weeks after the ‘Stop Soros’ law demonising NGOs came into force and the government-induced xenophobia in Hungarian society reached its peak. In this environment, the heavily government-leaning public media reported IKSZ’s position without giving Menedék the chance to respond to allegations that damaged its reputation, thus acting as a propaganda tool of the governing parties instead of providing real information.
After it lost before the courts, the public media has now appealed to the Constitutional Court arguing that, as the press, it is not its task to provide objective information: it does not have to verify the reality of what is said at a press conference. They argue that expecting them to check sources and question the other side is in effect censorship of the system.
In a joint submission to the Constitutional Court with Menedék, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) pointed out that according to the Fundamental Law, public service broadcasters have a duty to provide information that is necessary for the development of democratic public opinion. The Media Act and the Press Act make it clear that public media must contribute to the development of democratic public opinion by providing objective information presenting differing views. The public media cannot say that the opposition press will present the opposing opinion, it must ensure pluralism of opinion itself.
State media coverage of Russian invasion of Ukraine
As HCLU reported on 2nd March 2022, during the first week of Russia’s war against Ukraine, publicly-funded media in Hungary have repeatedly failed to meet the requirements of factuality and objectivity in their information programmes on the Russian war, in systematic violation of the legal rules on public service information. The government-captured Media Council has not stood up against Ukrainians being labeled as separatists in the news. Instead, as Emese Pásztor of HCLU states, according to the Media Council’s reaction it is not the activity of the public media, “but criticism of the activity of the public media that can be used to mislead public opinion and whip up public opinion.” To give the Media Council an insight into what is causing people's outrage, the Hungarian watchdog HCLU prepared a sample submission that anyone can personalise and submit to the Media Council. According to them, “completing the submission is a good way of making visible the indignation of the taxpayers whose money is used to pay for the public media, which acts as a mouthpiece for government propaganda.”
Developments on LGBTQI+ Rights
As reported previously on the CIVICUS Monitor, in November 2021, the Hungarian Parliament approved four trans- and homophobic referendum questions to be asked on the day of the general elections. The referendum asked the public whether they support sexual-orientation lessons for minors in public education without parental consent and whether they support the promotion of gender-reassignment treatment for minors. They were also asked whether they support "unrestricted sexual media content for minors that affects their development" and the "display of gender-sensitive media content to minors."
In early January 2022, Hungarian rights groups issued a statement calling on the public to invalidate ballotsin the referendum, arguing that the questions are hateful.
Emese Pásztor of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) told the CIVICUS Monitor that as this will be thefirst time in Hungary that a referendum and the general elections are held together, and the procedural regulations are not very clear, irregularities are to be expected.
Although the referendum failed to acquire enough votes to be deemed valid, 90 per cent of the votes received were in favour of the anti-LGBTQI+ law, while only a third of the votes were invalid in line with civil society’s calls.
Hungary's vile LGBT+ propaganda referendum fails as despot Orbán wins fourth term https://t.co/9MrMZELE1E— PinkNews (@PinkNews) April 4, 2022
Anti-LGBTQI+ propaganda law
On 2nd December 2021, the European Commission took the second stepin an infringement procedure against Hungary over its anti-LGBTQI+ propoganda law passed by the Hungarian Parliament on 15th June 2021. The Commission argued that the law violates the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (by violating the right to freedom of expression and non-discrimination) and breaches several EU directives and principles that EU Member States are obliged to respect.
Additionally, on 13th December 2021, the Venice Commission — which advises the Council of Europe (an international body independent of the European Union) on constitutional law matters — also found that the law violates the right to family life and the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their own convictions and contributes to creating a “threatening environment” for LGBTQI+ children and “leaves space only for one-sided and biased teaching, opening doors to stigmatisation and discrimination of LGBTQI+ people.”
Related to the law, on 1st February 2022, the Budapest Regional Court of Appeal ruled that government-friendly newspaper Magyar Nemzet did not violate the good name of the Labrisz Lesbian Association, which published the children’s book “Fairytales are for everyone”, by labelling the association a paedophile. “Fairytales are for everyone” features gender-diverse characters with different ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds, members of the LGBTQI+ community and diverse family settings.
According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, who represented Labrisz on the case, in its oral reasoning, the court pointed out that “the Prime Minister also sees a link between homosexuality and paedophilia, and the Magyar Nemzet article did nothing more than providing scientific evidence to this effect.” The judges also said that since paedophilia harms children, and the book too, the parallel could not be offensive. Labrisz is not satisfied with the ruling and is seeking a review.
In an independent development, a bookshop chain, Líra Csoport, found justice in front of the Curia, which acts as a Supreme Court in Hungary, after the court found that the bookshop chain was unlawfully fined 250,000 forints for selling “Micsoda család!”, a Hungarian translation combining two storybooks by American author Lawrence Schimel and illustrator Elīna Brasliņa. The book tells a story of a boy who has two mothers and a girl who has two fathers. As InsightHungary reports, the fines were given on the basis that the bookshop chain "had violated rules on unfair commercial practices by failing to clearly indicate that the book contained “content which deviates from the norm”.
Protest against the spread of war propaganda in publicly funded media
Opposition parties have stood up against publicly funded media spreading Russian war propaganda. Opposition leaders organised a demonstration outside the headquarters of the MTVA, the umbrella organisation for Hungarian state TV, radio and the news agency to stand up against the "Lies, falsifications and the spread of Russian propaganda in support of the aggressor, affecting the outcome of the elections.” They have also notified the OSCE of their worries concerning the propaganda used for campaigning purposes.
On 11th February 2022, the Hungarian government issued a decree, under the upheld emergency legislation due to the pandemic, effectively making teachers’ strikes impossible.
The decree was a reaction to the first strike by teachers in five years, on 31st January, in what they described as a prelude to an indefinite strike to be held from 16th March 2022. Hungarian teachers receive very low wages and face a high workload as it is in many cases impossible to find replacements for the teachers leaving the profession.
Within a few days, more and more teachers started to strike against the government’s new mandate, and refuse to work for a day or a few hours as an act of civil disobedience. The government asked them to ‘respect the law’. Since the teachers’ demands did not yield any results, the unions announced additional strike days for the second half of March 2022. A demonstration supporting the teachers’ cause was also held on 19th March 2022 in Budapest. The government, however, announced that they would not negotiate at least until after the elections on 3rd April 2022.
Rights defenders turn to ECtHR due to suspension of the right to peaceful assembly
As reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, during the spring of 2020, the government imposed a total ban on demonstrations. The ban lasted during periods of emergency, with a short break, until 23rd May 2021. While some restrictions on gatherings in a pandemic situation are certainly justifiable, a total ban is not. Honking protests, for example where motorists express their disagreement with the government’s policies, are not endangering public health. However, people participating in such protests were held accountable and in many cases were heavily fined “for breaking traffic rules”. Representing a protester, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) turned to the Constitutional Court asking it to investigate whether honking in such cases is protected by freedom of expression. As the Constitutional Court refused to protect the fundamental rights of the protester on the grounds of procedural irregularities committed by another person, HCLU will turn to the European Court of Human Rights.
Civic Space Developments