Hungary’s parliament has passed a set of measures to deal with the coronavirus pandemic that includes prison terms for those who spread misinformation and gives no time limit to a state of emergency that permits Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree. These measures passed in Parliament by a vote of 137 to 53, despite opposition parties' concerns about overreach and lack of sunset clauses in the laws.
Prison terms for up to five years will be handed out for the deliberate spread of misinformation that could hinder the government response to the pandemic. This lead some to reasonably fear that this provision may be used to both to censor journalists and for them to self-censor rather than accurately report criticism of the Orbán's administration.
Further, a definition of exactly what Orbán classifies as misinformation was not laid out. This has caused “disquiet among independent journalists, who have often been accused by the government and its loyal stable of media outlets of peddling fake news,” according to The Guardian.
For many, what is most alarming is the new criminal provision against spreading false information. Judit Varga, the justice minister, said it was “both adequate and necessary in order to fight malicious disinformation campaigns.”
However, this political move is perceived as an overt attack on critical reporting of the Orbán government’s response to the pandemic. Orbán and his advocates have often accused both foreign and Hungarian journalists and media of deliberately plotting to smear the his regime. Varga was clear that journalists are included in the misinformation clause.
Orbán has been accused of weakening the democratic norms and rule of law for the past 10 years. It has also been alleged that he used European Union money to fund his self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy.” The human rights organization Freedom House has downgraded Hungary to “partly free,” the only EU member state to earn this dishonourable status.
“The past 10 years have served as ample proof that the Hungarian government exploits and abuses opportunities to weaken institutions serving as a check on its power, whenever it has the chance to do so,” said the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital. “Extraordinary legal situations are very easy to introduce, but it is much harder to return to business as usual afterwards.”
Many critics of the bill are justifiably concerned that the government cannot be trusted to rescind these Draconian measures even when the pandemic is over, adding that a state of emergency related to the migration crisis issued in 2016 is still ongoing.
When asked about who would decide when the state of emergency could be declared over, Varga gave a non-answer: “Life will give the answer to this. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist, but I think it will be crystal clear for everyone in Europe when the crisis is over.”
Orbán’s spokesman Zoltán Kovács wrote in a blogpost on Monday: “Just as in wartime, a state of emergency could extend until the end of hostilities. Today, we confront not a military power but are in a war-like state to defend our people against a pandemic the likes of which we have not seen in a century."
At the time of this writing, Hungary has 447 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 15 deaths, although some say that figures are likely to be much higher. The country is currently under a partial lockdown, with citizens being strongly discouraged from going outside except for non-essential activities. Schools, restaurants, and many shops have shuttered their doors.