‘Corona virus bill’ seeks to erode freedom of expression even further

Expression

Freedom of expression has evidently been deteriorating for several years in Hungary. The country was ranked 56 out of 180 in the 2013 World Press Freedom Index, while in 2019 it ranked at 87.

In order to shed light on the depths of the problem and the frequency of rights violations, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) conducted in-depth interviews with the editor-in-chief and journalists of 19 affected media outlets (including the largest, most read online news portals) between September 2018 and October 2019. HCLU published the research paper in February 2019.

The research paper finds that journalists face a variety of obstacles, from deliberate disregard to physical detention and violence.

While the research paper paints an already grim picture on the state of freedom of expression in Hungary, with the Corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic reaching Hungary, it seems it is expected to deteriorate even further.

On 11th March 2020, Hungary declared a state of emergency due to the Corona virus, thus giving the government special powers (e.g. sealing borders and shutting down schools). Similarly, other European countries have been taking the same steps in an attempt to prevent their healthcare systems from collapsing and their elderly citizens from dying. However, the Hungarian government led by Viktor Orban has gone a considerable step further.

On 20th March 2019, Orban’s justice minister, Judit Varga submitted the Protection against the Coronavirus bill to Parliament which seeks to prolong emergency measures for as long as the government deems necessary. In addition, the bill would allow authorities to send those who are hindering measures aimed at containing the spread of the virus and those who spread false information to jail for up to five years.

During the week before the bill was submitted, the Orban government and the pro-government media accused independent media outlets of spreading “fake news”, for example, reporting that Hungarian doctors and nurses lack proper protective gear.

Critics fear that if the bill is passed it will be easy for Orban to dismantle the remaining democratic checks and balances. The Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic said that “even in an emergency, it is necessary to observe the Constitution, ensure parliamentary, judicial scrutiny and the right to information”.

According to the International Press Institute (IPI) the draft legislation threatening journalists with jail time “is a step toward total information control and a further suppression of press freedom in the country”.

In a statement, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) said:

“In these times of Corona, disinformation can kill people. State actors must not misuse the corona crisis to disseminate ideological spins or introduce censorship to whitewash the situation in their countries. Independent professional journalism, transparency of sources and accurate, fact-checked information are the best weapons to combat the pandemic. To protect the lives of their people, governments must put in place a credible and trustworthy information policy and foster instead of limiting the scrutiny of free media,” - Lutz Kinkel, ECPMF’s Managing Director.

Amnesty International, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, HCLU and Eötvös Károly Institute issued a joint statement condemning the bill.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also issued a statement stating that Orban is using this bill to undermine democratic freedoms and the rule of law.

Further threats to media freedom

There were several worrisome developments even before the Corona virus pandemic hit the country.

In mid-January, HCLU reported that a decision was made, entirely arbitrarily, on which editorial offices will be granted the opportunity to attend the Prime Minister’s annual press conference (“Orbáninfo”). While the pro-government media was well represented at the event, well-known independent online media (Átlátszó, Direkt3, Mérce, 24.hu) were denied entry. 24.hu’soffice received three different explanations within 24 hours regarding the grounds for the lockout.

In late January 2020, a Budapest court compelled Forbes magazine to remove the name of one of the owners of the Hell Energy drink company from its website. Forbes had included this owner as part of its list of the 50 richest Hungarians. The suit claimed that the magazine violated the European Union’s data privacy rules (General Data Protection Regulation) in including the owner’s name on the list without his permission.

“This is an absurd interpretation of the GDPR and sets a very troubling precedent for media coverage of business affairs in Hungary. The abuse of GDPR regulations to effectively give companies and business owners a veto over how publicly available information about them is used, directly threatens media freedom and has the potential to seriously undermine access to independent information on issues of public interest,” - IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen.

In early February 2020, Politico reported that according to internal emails obtained, Hungarian public media (MTVA) employees require special approval from their editors to cover topics such as migration, Brussels and Greta Thunberg. In addition, coverage of reports from leading human rights organisations is prohibited. In reaction, MTVA released a statement saying that “fake news sites with foreign help” have launched an attack against the state media and that editorial guidelines are a normal practice in any media outlet. According to Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher Lydia Gall:

This is another example of the Hungarian government undermining media freedom and attempting to silence and interfere with the vital work of civil society organisations."

Pro-government media empire found to be unlawful

On a more positive note, HCLU also reported that in January, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court stated that the decision of the Hungarian Competition Authority to allow for the creation of a pro-government media empire was unlawful. As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, a significant part of the Hungarian pro-government media was swept into the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA in Hungarian Közép-európai Sajtó- és Média Alapítvány) in late 2018. In November 2018, 476 media outlets became part of the new Hungarian media holding organisation controlled by pro-government forces. The media outlets were owned by pro-government oligarchs, who donated them to KESMA for free. According to media reports, most of the publications donated to the Foundation were affiliated to allies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

“This degree of concentration causes severe distortion to the media market, undermining the plurality of the press and threatening fair economic competition," - Dalma Dojcsák, director of the political freedoms project at HCLU.