The new law granting Hungary’s Viktor Orbán unlimited rule by decree has brought heavy criticism at home and abroad over potential abuses of power. Passed Monday, March 30 as necessary emergency powers to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, the so-called “Coronavirus Law” has also heightened tensions with the European Union, which has struggled to find an effective response to the Hungarian prime minister’s continuing breaches of EU law.
“Emergency legislation and measures should be strictly temporary, limited to addressing the situation at hand and contain appropriate safeguards,” said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN commissioner on Human Rights, on March 27. Worryingly, he continued, the Hungarian government can henceforth “bypass parliamentary scrutiny with no clear cutoff date.”
Following the vote, the European Commission warned member states that extraordinary legislation would be evaluated. “It’s of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the Commission, in a televised statement.
While Von der Leyen did not mention Hungary explicitly, Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders already had, tweeting, “this is particularly the case for the law passed today in Hungary concerning the state of emergency and new criminal penalties for the dissemination of false information.”
Specifically, the law criminalizes the act of “spreading misinformation about the pandemic” – a highly subjective term – allowing the government to imprison journalists effectively at will. Hungarian and international civil rights organizations and journalists are concerned that the new law, which has no sunset clause, is highly vulnerable to exploitation. Orbán’s party Fidesz refused to include the word “provable” in the law, thus critics believe it is intended to silence independent media.
“It’s about control, to scare us from writing real stories,” said Dániel Rényi of 444.hu, at a virtual press conference with Presseclub Concordia and IPI on March 27 in Vienna. “You always have something over your head, to have in their pocket as a pressure to put on journalists, to make them censor themselves.”
Hungary is not alone in assuming extraordinary powers in response to the pandemic; normal constitutional practices have also been suspended by other European governments as well, with borders closed and restrictions placed across the continent on freedom of movement and assembly and on the free operations of commerce. However, rule by decree is considered in a different league, and “should only remain for the period strictly necessary,” claimed Sólrún Gísladóttir, Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. In France, it is for two months only.
In Hungary, opposition parliamentarians agreed to rule-by-decree, if a clear timeframe were included. Nonetheless, no adjustments were made to the bill, and the ruling Fidesz-KDNP right-wing national-conservative alliance with their two-thirds majority, pushed the law through without the other parties.
“The authorization is not open-ended, it will last until the end of the epidemic,” insisted President János Áder on his website after signing the law. However, the government retains the right to decide when the crisis is over. confirmed by a two-thirds vote in Parliament. The state of emergency from the migration crisis, declared in 2016, is still binding.
Independent media declared “unreliable”
The new law contradicts European standards by allowing the Hungarian government to target critical reporters. “Measures [adopted during the coronavirus pandemic] should always ensure that fundamental rights, rule of law and democratic principles are protected,” cautioned the European Parliament’s Juan Fernando López Aguilar, Chair of the Civil Liberties Committee.
Limitations on freedom of expression should also be necessary and proportionate. “In a pandemic, a ban on demonstrations can be justified in order to limit social contact,” wrote Eva Simon, senior advocacy officer at the Civil Liberties Union for Europe on Qubit.hu, but “the fight against falsehoods cannot lead to censorship.”
Orbán, Fidesz politicians, and government-financed media frequently discredit journalists and outlets who challenge the government’s narrative, labelling their work as ‘fake-news’. “When we report that healthcare workers are suffering from a lack of protective equipment, we corroborate these reports numerous times,” wrote Péter Magyari of 444.hu. “Reporting on problems that have arisen in the management of the pandemic, we are accused of arousing panic”.
EU members fed up with Fidesz
“We support the European Commission initiative to monitor the emergency measures and …ensure the fundamental values of the Union are upheld,” declared 13 Western European governments April 1. The text, without mentioning Hungary by name, asserts that rule of law and free press is a must for European members. Published on the Dutch government’s website, it was signed by Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.
Some EU politicians were more blunt. Danish members of the European People’s Party proposed the exclusion of Fidesz and the Foreign Minister of Luxembourg to subject Hungary to “political quarantine”.
Fidesz’s membership in the EPP, the European Parliament’s largest faction, has been in jeopardy for some time, as Hungarian policies increasingly threatened democratic institutions. In February, the EPP, while not banishing Fidesz, voted to keep the suspension.
Political quarantine would mean in practice that European officials would no longer meet with EU accredited Hungarian diplomats and ministers.
Even Polish politician Donald Tusk, a long-time friend of Orbán, now president of the European People’s Party, criticized Fidesz in an open letter to party members.
Although emergency legislation was warranted, no government should abuse the situation, Tusk warned: “It is politically extremely dangerous and morally unacceptable to use a pandemic to declare a permanent emergency. Soon it is time for the party family to reconsider its position on Fidesz membership.”
On April 3, 2020, Metropole had a political analyst, public sector advisor and Metropole contributor from Budapest, Hungary join the Dispatch. Andras Zagoni-Bogsch studied for his masters at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and is a specialist in contemporary Hungarian politics and keeping a close eye on the evolution of coronavirus in Hungary and the political response: