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Hungary’s two pandemics: COVID-19 and attacks on media freedom
 
17.06.2020
 
A legal opinion commissioned by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) finds that the Hungarian Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic fails to live up to domestic or European legal standards and entrenches the country’s attacks on independent media outlets, journalists and media workers.
 
In March 2020, the Hungarian Government proclaimed a State of Danger, passed a number of decrees and adopted a new bill; the Authorisation Act, in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Authorisation Act gave the Government enhanced powers to rule by decree, enabling it to bring forward, amend or withdraw legislation and amend the Hungarian Criminal Code to expand the definition of the crime of “Scaremongering”. Due to the ruling party coalition’s two-thirds majority in Parliament, these changes were swiftly adopted and implemented. Recently, the Hungarian Government has stated its intention to repeal the State of Danger. However, it is unclear whether this repeal will cover all changes made and what mechanisms will be in place to identify and address the short- and long-term impact of these amendments on media freedom.
 
"The Hungarian Government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates their willingness to use any excuse to restrict and attack media freedom”, says Dr. Polyák Gábor, author of the legal opinion. “Without an independent Constitutional Court or any other adequate check on state power in Hungary, these actions that violate both Hungarian and European law can continue to demonise, isolate and threaten journalists and media workers. While the COVID-19 pandemic will come to an end, the pandemic of threats to media freedom looks set to continue in Hungary
 
The proposed repeal of these legislative changes should not close the door on dissecting how the Hungarian Government responds to independent media scrutiny, especially at a time where press and media freedom is already under threat. Since 2014, Hungary has fallen 25 places in the World Press Freedom Index, ranked 89th out of 180 in 2020. In the same period there have been over 251 alerts uploaded to the Mapping Media Freedom platform. These range from restricting access to public funds, support and licences available for independent outlets, journalists and media workers; the demonising of critical reporting as “fake news” and the limiting of access to ministers, representatives and health professionals. The Government’s response to the pandemic has entrenched the fragile state of press and media freedom in Hungary. A joint press freedom mission to Hungary in December 2019 concluded that the country continues to dismantle media freedom and pluralism.
 
The Hungarian government has long demonstrated that it will use its power to limit human rights, including freedom of media,” says ECPMF’s legal advisor, Flutura Kusari. “This legal opinion documents the latest attack on press freedom in Hungary that aims at controlling media and creating a chilling effect on journalists. We call on the European Commission to use its Rule of Law Mechanism to hold Hungary accountable”.
 
This legal opinion, authored by Dr. Polyák Gábor, Mertek Media Monitor (CMDS) highlights the changes brought forward by the Hungarian Government and a number of issues related to potential violations of Hungarian Basic Law. These include the ability to sidestep parliament, by not affording them the opportunity to approve or question any extension to decrees passed during the Special Legal Order, and using vague definitions found in pre-existing disaster management legislation to extend the Government’s powers during the pandemic. Further to this, amending the crime of scaremongering, while bypassing existing legislation that can target malicious communications, increases confusion about the laws that target free expression and reduces the space within which media outlets, journalists, media workers and civil society can express themselves free from the risk of state action.

 
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Press contact
Faith Miyandazi, press(at)ecpmf.eu
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The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) is a non-profit European Cooperative Society, based in Leipzig, Germany. The ECPMF was founded in 2015 to promote the European Charter on Freedom of the Press throughout Europe. The ECPMF helps shaping a common European media space. It preserves, defends, protects and expands press- and media freedom by monitoring the state of free media in Europe, advocating on media freedom issues, initiating diverse activities and providing practical support to journalists at risk.

The ECPMF is supported by: European Commission, Media Foundation of Sparkasse Leipzig, Free State of Saxony, the City of Leipzig and diverse project funding.
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