In early May 2020, US-based rights watchdog Freedom House in their "Nations in Transit" report said that Hungary experienced "the most precipitous" democratic decline ever tracked by the organisation. At present, the country has crossed the line from a democracy to a "transitional/hybrid regime." Transitional/hybrid regimes have fragile democratic institutions and citizens face substantial challenges to their rights and liberties. The report states:
“Hungary was one of the three democratic frontrunners in 2005, but in 2020 it became the first country to descend by two regime categories and leave the group of democracies entirely.”
As reported previously by the Monitor, on 11th March 2020, Hungary declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus (COVID-19). The state of emergency gave the government special powers for 15 days. On 20th March 2020, Justice Minister Judit Varga submitted a draft bill to parliament that would prolong emergency measures for as long as the government deems necessary. The so-called Authorisation Act was adopted on 30th March 2020.
Besides introducing excessively wide powers without a sunset clause, it allowed authorities to send those who are spreading false information in connection with the pandemic to jail for up to five years.
As human rights NGOs forewarned, the Authorisation Act has further exacerbated the deterioration of the rule of law and the state of democracy in Hungary.
As the investigative outlet Atlatszo reported, by mid-May 2020 the government adopted 104 state of danger decrees. “A significant number of the measures was only indirectly linked with the pandemic, such as the fiscal and financial measures to protect the economy, while some of them – like the ones stripping local municipalities (in general or by even naming them) of some of their powers and incomes – were pandemic-related in name only.” As parliament was constantly in session during the pandemic and as most of the decrees were not especially urgent in nature, normal procedures could have been followed.
Many were alarmed that the government would not withdraw its new powers once the pandemic is over and that eventually this will lead the country into becoming an authoritarian state. When the government decided to submit a pair of bills on terminating the state of emergency, its officials called such concerns baseless accusations and demanded apologies.
However, as experts from several Hungarian NGOs analysed the new bills (Bill on Terminating the State of Danger (T/10747) & the Bill on Transitional Provisions related to the Termination of the State of Danger (T/10748)), they found that the bills in question do not eliminate the state of emergency at all. Under the new provisions, the chief medical officer would be authorised to recommend a "state of medical emergency" for a period of up to six months, which could then be extended for an additional six-month period without parliamentary oversight.
According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) and Amnesty International Hungary, “if the Bills are adopted in their present form, that will allow the government to again rule by decree for an indefinite period of time, this time without even the minimal constitutional safeguards”.
Protestors fined for traffic violations during lockdown
From 20th April 2020, independent MPs Bernadett Szél and Ákos Hadházy led weekly protests in Hungary’s capital Budapest, against a government order to evacuate 60 percent of Hungary's hospital beds to make room for potential coronavirus patients.
In order to adhere to social distancing, protesters showed up by car at Clark Adam square (under the prime minister’s office in the Buda Castle) and honked to demonstrate that they believe the Hungarian government is mismanaging the coronavirus crisis.
The first protest took place without incident. However, the following week police started to fine protesters for traffic law violations (unjustified use of horns). From the third week, protesters were fined for violating lockdown rules by leaving their homes without good reason. (During this time going to the hairdresser qualified as a good reason, however expressing one’s opinion about the government’s performance, according to the police, did not.)
The fines were unusually high, on average HUF 150,000 - 200,000 (EUR 420-640). The largest known fine for taking part in the event was HUF 750,000 (EUR 2,100), given to an activist with previous offences.
Protests over bill targeting transgender rights
On 19th May 2020 the Hungarian parliament passed an amendment to the omnibus bill changing the Registry act to only recognise “sex at birth”, which was later signed into law by President Janos Ader on 28th May 2020. The new law makes the legal recognition of transgender and intersex persons impossible and will lead to further discrimination of these groups.
Following this, the constitutionality of the law is being challenged by The Transvanilla Transgender Association on behalf of two transgender applicants who are affected by this change in law. The initial bill (now law) sparked outcry from human rights organisations, the Council of Europe (COE) and transgender rights organisations.
In a statement Amnesty International condemned the amendment:
"This decision pushes Hungary back towards the dark ages and tramples the rights of transgender and intersex people. It will not only expose them to further discrimination but will also deepen an already intolerant and hostile environment faced by the LGBTI community," - Amnesty International’s Researcher, Krisztina Tamás-Sáróy.
It is urging people to petition the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights in Hungary through an online campaign.
The change in law which has been labelled as anti-transgender has sparked online protests under #drop33 (section 33 of the new law).
As mentioned above, the so-called Authorisation Act allows authorities to send those who are spreading false information to jail for up to five years.
In mid-May 2020, police detained two people for spreading pandemic-related fake news. While the prosecutors decided to drop their cases against the two individuals, it is likely that such developments will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. By 11th May 2020 police had initiated proceedings against 85 people for the dissemination of false information and incitement to fear.
Many ordinary Internet users will feel discouraged to express critical opinions on social media toward the government because they do not want the police to show up at their doorstep in the early morning, be featured in videos on the police website, or have their laptops and mobile phones seized for weeks. (A third person had their mobile phone seized for more than three weeks.)
According to HCLU, there was no need to introduce this new legal instrument against those spreading fake news. Dalma Dojcsák, Director of the Political Freedoms Project at the HCLU, told the CIVICUS Monitor that in Hungary it is already possible to hold ill-intentioned distributors of false information accountable in an efficient manner. The new legal measures are loose and ill-defined, which leads to uncertainty amongst citizens as to whether they have broken the law.
Independent media face further challenges
As advertising revenues are expected to shrink further in the coming months, media analysts believe that several smaller independent outlets will not survive in 2020. Balkan Insight reports that some organisations have already cut salaries by 20 per cent, while others have laid journalists off. Meanwhile, government-friendly media outlets have had a steady supply of government-funded advertising and face no challenges.
As of 28th May 2020, no journalists have been detained for spreading fake news based on the Authorisation Act. However, this does not mean they do not face other forms of restrictions. For example, critical questions posed by the independent media to the government tend to be ignored more than previously and their access to information has diminished.
In a positive development, on 26th May 2020 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the speaker of the parliament, László Kövér, violated six journalists' rights to freedom of expression in 2016 when he revoked their credentials and prohibited them from attending parliamentary sessions.
“Our research also shows that power restricts the work of journalists by a variety of means, thereby hampering its own accountability. That is why we are pleased that the six journalists we represent have been given a favorable verdict, after which systemic changes must take place. The previous practice of allowing filming in parliamentary corridors must be restored and the arbitrary ban on journalists must be ended. We will monitor this,”- Dalma Dojcsák, a lawyer at the HCLU.
Cartoonist faces harassment
On 28th April 2020, the daily Népszava published a cartoon by Gábor Pápai which depicted the Hungarian National Public Health Centre's chief doctor looking at Jesus on the cross, stating “...His underlying condition caused dependence". Its purpose was to mock the government’s handling of the crisis. The Christian Democrat Peoples Party (KDNP) accused the cartoonist of blasphemy and announced that they would sue him. Following this, pro- government media launched an attack against Pápai, which included a call to publicise his home address on a radio show because “there are many who would pay him a visit." Reporters without Borders (RSF) condemned the repeated harassment of the cartoonist.