On 14 May the European Parliament again discussed the rule of law in Hungary. This time the debate was prompted by the Hungarian government's successful plea to introduce rule by decree without a time limit to during the coronavirus pandemic. Viktor Orbán was also expected at the plenary debate in Brussels. However, claiming he was too busy combatting the pandemic to appear, he delegated the Minister of Justice Judit Varga to replace him at the event. However, the rules of the Parliament of the European Union did not allow Varga speak at the meeting. At the same time, she made the speech she was supposed to have delivered at the EP available to the Hungarian public. In it she claimed, for instance, that "the extraordinary measures of the Hungarian government do not restrict the activities of the media and do not affect the freedom of expression".
Two individuals arrested
The minister's speech would have come soon after police detained an opposition activist in a small town and a pensioner living in the countryside for publishing their opinions on Facebook. The activist, János Csóka-Szűcs was reported for a post in which he said 1,170 hospital beds had been vacated for coronavirus patients in Gyula, his place of residence. András Kusinszki was held responsible for expressing his opinion about loosening curfew restrictions only one day after the expected peak of the pandemic.
Csóka-Szűcs and Kusinszki were accused of spreading fake news. The pro-government majority in the Hungarian Parliament modified the criminal offence of spreading fake news in the very law that gave unprecedented authority to Viktor Orbán's government. The law became stricter, in that even by 'distorting' a fact one can commit the offence of spreading fake news, when this 'may interfere with effective protection'.
Law was expected to apply to the media and journalists, not individuals posting on social media
Before the law was adopted, HCLU warned that it could have a chilling effect. The organization expected it to be applied against journalists critically reporting on the government's pandemic measures. This presumption seemed to be supported by several facts: state agencies deprived the press the opportunity of directly questioning officials, public television started a new program in which critical reporting by the independent media was labelled fake news, and government controlled media claimed gags were needed to silence certain sections of the press.
However, this time it was two citizens publishing their opinions that the police held responsible. Although proceedings against them were dismissed and the prosecution even declared they had not committed any crime, these cases may deter many internet users from expressing their views. For instance, because they do not feel like being visited by the police at six o'clock in the morning and having officers searching through their homes and arresting them, all recorded on video and posted on the website of the police as a trophy, which is exactly what happened to András Kusinszki.
No charges were brought but the effect could be that people will be afraid to post their opinions
As a matter of fact, there was no need to introduce stricter rules about spreading fake news, as the previous rules were sufficiently effective to call someone to account when spreading fake news in bad faith. The wording of the new rule is vague and the police misapplied. This leaves people unsure what kind of behavior could bring the police to their door.
Freedom of speech can be compromised not only by direct censorship but also if citizens are afraid to express their opinions. Any legislations that have such an effect limit the freedom of speech, which is enough reason for the Constitutional Court to annul them.
At the same time, another consequence of András Kusinszki's and János Csóka-Szűcs's arrests was that their opinions reached a lot more people this way; their cases have called attention to how critical opinions are silenced by government measures taken under the pretext of the pandemic crisis.