With more than half of its population now vaccinated with at least one dose, restrictions, such as the curfew, or the obligation to wear a mask outside, are being lifted. However, the state of emergency, giving extra powers to the government, is being held up, and in late May 2021, the government was authorised to uphold the effect of decrees issued during the state of emergency that would have lost their effect in 15 days.
More than ten months ago the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) ruled that the Hungarian ‘LexNGO’ law that was in force from 2017 was in breach of EU laws on the free movement of capital and fundamental EU rights on the respect of private life, protection of data and freedom of association. On 18th May 2021, the Hungarian Parliament repealed it. Responding to the development, the Director of Amnesty International Hungary, Dávid Vig, said:
“Today is a big day because we have proven that through resilience and perseverance we can make a difference. We have fought against the smear campaigns for years together with other NGOs in Hungary, and finally today we witness the withdrawal of the law that should have never been adopted at the first place.”
However, at the same time, the Parliament adopted a new law that threatens the work of NGOs. In April 2021 a coalition of 19 NGOs voiced concerns over the new law, which requires the State Audit Office to report annually on the financial status of NGOs which have a budget that exceeds 20 million forints (55,000 Euros) and “influence the public”, and empowers the authority to selectively audit them. The law also discriminates against specific NGOs, as religious, sport and national minority organisations are exempt.
Emese Pásztor, head of the Political Freedoms Project at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) told the CIVICUS Monitor that while the law is disguised as a legal measure intended to ensure transparency, in reality “the purpose of this law is simply to stigmatise Hungarian civil society.” The transparency over the finances of NGOs is already ensured under current legislation.
Giving the State Audit Office the power to audit NGOs is not standard practice as the State Audit Office is meant to control and audit the finances of those entities that manage public money or national property. Many NGOs, however, do not accept any public funds. The law does not specify what the audits should cover, making it unclear what exactly the State Audit Office is supposed to look for. At the same time, such an audit may impose an unnecessary administrative burden on human rights defenders critical of the government and could be misused to make their work as difficult as possible.
According to HCLU, the new law is not only unconstitutional but also violates human rights as it interferes with the right of association.
From the end of May 2021, the government eased the total ban on assembly under current COVID-19 related restrictions, allowing up to 500 people without a government-issued immunity certificate to attend outdoor events, including demonstrations. The restrictions on gatherings expired in mid-June 2021.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) reports that although the ban on assembly is no longer in place, restrictions remain arbitrary. This is due to the fact that organising meetings and gatherings is still forbidden but demonstrations (among other occasions) were declared an exception, subject to strict limits. In HHC’s view,
“according to this logic, the exercise of the right of assembly is not the rule and the restriction is the exception, but the other way round: the right of assembly as a fundamental right has become an exception allowed by the government. This in itself is completely incompatible with the nature of the right of assembly as a right to freedom. However, it does not only have theoretical consequences. It also follows from the general rule nature of the prohibition of assembly that severe sanctions can only be avoided if the assembly complies in all respects with the exception rule.”
According to the regulations, those carrying government-issued immunity certificates, and minors accompanying those carrying government-issued immunity certificates, are allowed to attend demonstrations of over 500 participants. If a single person without a certificate somehow joins a protest of thousands, the entire protest would have to be disbanded. This, however, means that in order to practise their rights to peaceful assembly, each participant must prove his or her identity and show their immunity certificate individually. This allows for a practice that is unacceptable under international standards on the right of peaceful assembly: the unrestricted possibility of individual identification of participants.
In addition, the heavy sanctions against those breaching the rules still apply. Participants in demonstrations could be fined up to 500,000 forints (about 1,450 Euros), while organisers could be fined up to 1 million. In addition, according to the current regulations, the fines imposed on the organisers are not misdemeanor fines, but administrative fines. Administrative fines have to be paid within 15 days even if you take the case to court.
Nevertheless, on 5th June 2021, an estimated 10,000 Hungarians protested the planned construction of the Chinese Fudan University campus. The organiser, András Jámbor, a left-wing activist and LMP candidate, registered 20 independent under-500 protests for those without the vaccination certificate and a bigger protest for those who possessed one.
The campus construction is planned to take place at the site of the Budapest Student City – Southern City Gate Development Program. Budapest mayor and co-leader of leftist green party Gergely Karácsony argued at the demonstration that “the building of a Chinese university could be a tool for China to build its political influence, power and secret service in Hungary and Europe.”
Several people demonstrating were concerned about the costs and potential corruption around the construction. According to investigative portal Direkt36, the Hungarian government wants to spend around 1,5 billion Euros on it, and a large part of the costs are to be covered by Chinese loans. The construction is to be carried out by a Chinese company.
Government officials argue that a dedicated campus of a world-class university would increase Hungary's attractiveness as an international educational location and make Hungarian universities more competitive. However, the same government forced one of the country’s best-ranked universities, the Central European University (CEU), to leave Hungary in 2018, with members of the ruling Fidesz party labelling staff members as “Soros mercenaries”.
The protest against the construction of the Fundan campus was the first Hungarian mass protest in seven months, due to the prior restrictions on the right to assembly and protestors being heavily fined.
‘A dark day’ for LGBTI rights
As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the rights of LGBTI persons have come under severe attack amid the pandemic. On 15th June 2021 the Hungarian Parliament passed an anti-LGBTI law which bans education and advertising that is deemed to “popularise” or even depict, consensual same-sex conduct or the affirming of one’s gender to children. The measures have been equated to Russia’s 2013 law against “gay propaganda”.
The bill was passed despite mass protests staged outside Parliament in Budapest on 14th June 2021, with people chanting “we are here!” as they called on lawmakers to reject the legislation. In a statement Amnesty International Hungary said:
“This is a dark day for LGBTI rights and for Hungary. Like the infamous Russian ”propaganda law” this new legislation will further stigmatise LGBTI people and their allies. It will expose people already facing a hostile environment to even greater discrimination. Tagging these amendments to a bill that seeks to crack down on child abuse appears to be a deliberate attempt by the Hungarian government to conflate paedophilia with LGBTI people. The EU and its member states must take urgent steps by raising this issue at the next General Affairs Meeting in the Council and ensuring that the EU is a safe place for LGBTI people,”- David Vig, Amnesty International Hungary.
The Hátter Society, a LGBTI rights group in Hungary said:
“Even though the government is trying to turn LGBTQI people into a public enemy, these last few days have shown that Hungarians are not asking for hate and provocation. Now we will focus on using all available legal means to challenge this offensive and inhumane law, both domestically and abroad,”- Luca Dudits, board member of Háttér Society.
“Most important is to tell LGBTQI youth and their families that they are not alone, that people will stand up for their rights. This was demonstrated yesterday by 10,000 protesters and 100,000 signatories, and everyone who has posted or spoken out against this evil law,” - Viktória Radványi, an organiser of Budapest Pride.
Following this, the European Commission said it will take legal steps against Hungary’s new anti-LGBTI legislation, with President of the commission Ursula von der Leyen calling the bill a “shame”. The leaders of 17 EU countries published a joint letter vowing to “continue fighting against discrimination towards the LGBTI community.”
On 12th May 2021, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) published its third report on the ongoing struggles of press independence in Hungary. Its previous reports found that the work of the Hungarian independent press is systematically hampered by public authorities in a variety of ways, including ignoring journalists' questions, intimidating sources, forbidding journalists to enter certain spaces, discrediting and stigmatising press staff. These practices undermine public access to information, make the exercise of public power less transparent and reduce the amount of information of public interest available to citizens.
The new report found that the situation was further aggravated during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a healthy democracy, the press plays its part in the fight against the pandemic by informing the public about events and decisions of public interest, by counteracting the huge amount of disinformation related to the pandemic and by reporting on the situation and the work of health workers and the situation of health institutions. However, during the pandemic, it was more difficult for independent Hungarian media outlets to obtain relevant and credible information than ever before. New types of barriers have emerged, specifically linked to the pandemic situation, such as the absence of press conferences or their relocation to the online sphere in a non-interactive way. This (combined with one-sided government communication and incomplete information) has led to a significant lack of information on the pandemic and the government’s performance in managing its impacts.
Related to this, on 31st March 2021, several Hungarian media outlets published an open letter accusing the government of barring the media from reporting on the full extent of the COVID-19 pandemic and thus putting people at risk. Journalists report being denied access to interview health experts and being barred from hospitals.
"Since people are cut off from this information … many are still downplaying the dangers of the pandemic and are not observing protective measures which is leading to more illness and thus an exacerbation of the pandemic," the letter said.
Only state media, which is under the control of the Fidesz party and its allies, have been permitted into hospitals and COVID-19 wards to report. In response to these claims, the government has accused “left-wing portals” of spreading “fake news” to embarrass the country’s health care system.
In a separate development, on 6th April 2021 a letter containing a suspicious powder was sent to the editor-in-chief of the city newspaper in Szentendre, Hungary. The previous week, an anonymous threatening letter was sent to the local newspaper’s editor, Sarolta Gál. It accused the publication of publishing anti-vaccine statements. This was in reference to six short opinion pieces which appeared in the paper. Police were called to remove the suspicious powder for analysis.
On 7th April 2021, as reported by Mapping Media Freedom Rapid Response, Franziska Tschinderle, a journalist at Austrian independent news magazine Profil was smeared by Hungarian public television station M1. This comes after the journalist emailed questions to MEPs with questions about Fidesz’s talks with politicians in Italy and Poland about establishing a new party group within the European Union. During the broadcast, M1 accused the journalist of sending “provocative statements disguised as questions” and labelling her outlet as “left liberal press”, with her a “provocateur”. The three-minute segment mentioned Tschinderle by name and showed screenshots of the questions, along with previous articles she had written about the Orbán government.
See the original article on Civicus Monitor.