Democracy & Justice

Journalists Cannot be Barred from Hungarian Refugee Camps

The Hungarian state violated a journalist's rights by not letting him enter the territory of any of the country's refugee camps, affirmed the European Court of Human Rights. The journalist, Illés Szurovecz, was represented by HCLU in Strasbourg.

by Gábor Medvegy

Szurovecz wanted to report on the circumstances prevailing in Hungarian refugee camps at the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015. His plan was to cover, first of all, the open refugee camp in Debrecen where the ombudsman concluded the conditions violated the rights of asylum seekers. He had requested an entry permit from the camp operators the Office of Immigration and Nationality, which was refused, with the reasoning being that allowing journalists in would endanger the safety of the asylum seekers living in the camp, as the stories could become available the countries they had fled from. Although Szurovecz said he would only take photographs of people who had given their written consent, he was still not let into the camp. He then initiated legal proceedings against the decision in Hungary. The court stated it had no legal competence in the case.

Journalists can uncover abuses of state power

With the help of HCLU, Szurovecz turned to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming his right to the freedom of expression and right to legal redress had been violated. Physically barring journalists from reporting constitutes a serious infringement, violating the rights of the public as well as of the representatives of the media. This is because these journalists, who are dedicated to keeping the state in check, are unable to reveal any misuses and abuses of power that occur behind closed doors.

In its defence, Hungary said the journalist could have used the reports made by civil society organisations at the camp for his work, or could have conducted interviews outside the camp. However, the Strasbourg court stated that first hand information checked by the journalist himself was much more valuable than information obtained indirectly. The ruling also emphasised the specially important role of the media in reporting on vulnerable social groups, as publicity provides some guarantee that state bodies will be held accountable for their actions.

Hungary fails to explain how reporting would have endangered asylum seekers' safety

An important part of the ruling is that in justifying the barring by citing the need to protect the privacy of asylum seekers, the Hungarian authorities failed to take into account that the journalist was going to protect the subjects' anonymity. They also failed to explain how the report would have endangered the safety of the people living in the camp as long as their written consent was obtained.

The ruling is also important in that it affirms that journalists have a right not only to the freedom of expression but also to collect information, and that choosing the means of reporting pertains to the freedom of journalists.

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