The country has been in a strict lockdown introduced in November 2020 and extended on several occasions, most recently on 4th March 2021, as the third wave hit Hungary severely. From 8th February 2021, a state of emergency was again declared, extending seventy government decrees. The restrictions imposed by the government include night-time curfews, a ban on public gatherings and the closure of shops, restaurants and schools.
The government’s vaccine strategy stands out from that of other EU countries, breaking with the EU’s centralised scheme. It was the first to approve the Russian and Chinese vaccines, although neither has yet been authorised by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Prime Minister Viktor Orban has criticised the EU for the long procurement process and decided to opt-out of the Moderna vaccine, blaming the company’s failure to deliver the doses on time. In February 2021 the government amended a decree to provide that the origin of the vaccine will not be stated on the certificate.
As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on 18th June 2020 that Hungary’s NGO foreign funding law, which requires non-profit organisations receiving at least 22,000 Euros of funding from abroad to disclose their donors, was unlawful. Several NGOs have refused to comply with the law, including the Power of Humanity Foundation (PHF). As a result, the Tempus Public Foundation, which was established by the government, rejected an EU grant application by the PHF.
“We were shocked to learn that a grant established to promote European values was denied to us because we refused to comply with regulations that go against the same EU values.... To declare ourselves as foreign funded NGOs was out of the question for us. We decided to boycott this law as an act of civil disobedience because we respect European values and human rights unconditionally.” - Zoltán Mester, PHF’s communications coordinator.
Civil society organisations (CSOs) have criticised the move. On 18th December 2020, in a letter to the European Commission, the Civil Liberties Union for Europe, the Society for Freedoms, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and Amnesty International Hungary called for a repeal of the law and asked the Commission to take clear steps including setting a deadline for the repeal of the law and imposing a fine if the government failed to comply with the judgment.
On 14th January 2021, the Vice President of the European Commission, Věra Jourová, announced that the Commission would be investigating the lawfulness of the Tempus Foundation’s refusal to accept the EU grant application by the PHF. A month later, the Commission sent a formal notice, warning Hungary over its failure to respect the ECJ’s ruling on its anti-NGO law. Věra Jourová wrote in a tweet, "We must take a firm step to ensure compliance with this judgment. Civil society organisations are [a] key part of our democracies. We must support them, not fight them." In its letter, the Commission asks Hungary to “reply to the concerns raised by the Commission” within a period of two months. In case of non-compliance, Hungary may face financial sanctions.
In November 2020 the government banned demonstrations, threatening organisers and participants with hefty fines. Nonetheless, several protests took place. On 31st January 2021, about 300 people gathered on Budapest’s Heroes’ Square, demanding the opening of restaurants and other establishments in the hospitality industry. On 1st February 2021 the protests continued and the organisers were fined 3.5 million forints (about 9,535 euros).
The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) sharply criticised the ban on gatherings, arguing that citizens could gather without health risks as demonstrated during the “car-honking protests” in May 2020 (see update here), where people sat on their cars in protest against the hospital evacuations ordered by the government. Emese Pásztor, head of the Political Freedoms Project at the HCLU said,
“We at the Hungarian Civil Union think that the general ban on protests is unconstitutional, it is obviously disproportionate”.
Another protest was organised on 15th March 2021, where hundreds of people from the far-right party Mi Hazank Mozgalom (Our Homeland Movement) marched against the COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the government. Police have fined protesters 4.5 million forints (EUR 12,200) for taking part in the protest. In addition, police have taken action against four people for organising and staging the protests.
Independent radio station loses licence
On 14th February 2021, the independent and government-critical Hungarian radio station Klubrádió lost its licence, forcing it off the airwaves. The country’s Media Council, whose members are elected by the Hungarian National Assembly in which Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party has a majority, had announced on 11th September 2020 that it would not extend Klubrádió’s licence. It explained that Klubrádió, on two occastions, had failed to submit documents on time and therefore “repeatedly infringed” the rules. The radio station accused the Council of discrimination, pointing out that other radio stations responsible for similar minor administrative violations were not forced off the air.
The Media Council’s decision was legally challenged by Klubrádió with the help of HCLU, asking the court to force the Council to conduct a new procedure. On 9th February 2021, the Metropolitan Court in Budapest dismissed the appeal. In its reasoning, the court did not address the fact that the media regulator had overlooked similar administrative violations by other radio stations. It also did not consider that Klubrádió’s violation was a minor offence and could therefore not be considered a “repeated violation” under Article 187 Section 4 of the Media Act. Klubrádió will continue to operate online but has lost many of its listeners.
Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights tweeted, “Another silenced voice for Hungary. Another sad day for media freedom”. The Deputy Director of the International Press Institute (IPI), Scott Griffen said,
“Today’s verdict will force Hungary’s last major independent radio broadcaster off the air. It is devastating for what remains of media pluralism in Hungary and will have far-reaching implications inside and outside the country’s borders...Make no mistake: This is the outcome of a deliberate, decade-long effort by political forces in Hungary to eradicate Klubrádió from the airwaves. The court has merely delivered the final blow.”
Soon after Klubrádió lost its licence, the United States’ Radio Free Europe and the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) announced that they would resume Hungarian services. DW’s director-general Peter Limbourg said, “We are seeing that media diversity and press freedom are getting worse all the time in Hungary”.
The Hungarian government was not pleased with the announcement. Even before DW produced any material, government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs said, “DW is deeply biased and has been fuelling irrational Orbanophobia for years. If that’s what you call German ‘public service’ media, then we are deeply concerned about media pluralism in Germany”. He added, “Having the audacity to bring us otherwise deprived, unenlightened Hungarians ‘real stories’ from Berlin is another sad example of the left-liberal German media’s embodiment of the dictatorship of opinion. The arrogance is breathtaking.”
Concerns over drone law
As reported previously, in October 2020 journalists Gabriella Horn (Átlátszó) and Balázs Gulyás (Magyar Hang) were questioned by the police over their sources and use of drone footage. The journalists were summoned following the publication of stories on their separate platforms during May 2020, which dealt with two military-grade armoured vehicles parked on the estates of a company owned by businessman Lőrinc Mészáros, former gas pipefitter turned billionaire and a childhood friend of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The reporters were investigated for “illicit acquisition of data” but the case against them was later dropped. A month after this, proposed legislation to regulate the use of such drones was sent to parliament. In December 2020, Orban’s Fidesz party used its parliamentary majority to pass the bill, the law taking effect in January 2021. Concerns have been raised by journalists that the law is aimed at deterring the media from using drones for reporting on public interest issues. Journalistic crews planning to use drones must now request a permit from authorities 30 days before flying and seek authorisation from property owners over whose land the drone will fly. The law also goes beyond EU guidelines.
Further attacks on LGBTI rights
On 19th January 2021, the Labrisz Lesbian Association was ordered by the government to print disclaimers identifying books containing “behaviour inconsistent with traditional gender roles”. The book called “Wonderland is For Everyone” contains stories that promote respect of people from all backgrounds and sexual orientations. The Government Office in the capital city of Budapest noted that Labrisz was engaging in unfair commercial practices as consumers were not informed in advance about the content and subject matter of the book. The LGBTI rights organisation Hatter and Labrisz said that they would bring legal action against the government, calling the disclaimer requirement discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Parliament amends Constitution
On 15th December 2020, the parliament amended the Hungarian Constitution to include the following sentence: “The mother is a woman, the father is a man”. It also now states that “Hungary protects the right of children to self-identify according to their sex at birth and provides an upbringing in accordance with the values based on Hungary’s constitutional identity and Christian culture.” In addition, the amendment prevents adoptions by non-married couples.
Amnesty International, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) and Transgender Europe strongly condemned the vote. David Vig, Director of Amnesty International said:
This is a dark day for Hungary’s LGBTQ community and a dark day for human rights. These discriminatory, homophobic and transphobic new laws – rushed through under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic – are just the latest attack on LGBTQ people by Hungarian authorities.”
Katrin Hugendubel from ILGA Europe said,
“These bills further restrict the rights of LGBTI children and parents in Hungary. LGBTI children will be forced to grow up in an environment which restricts them from being able to express their identities, and children across Hungary will be refused safe and loving families, as adoption is restricted only to married heterosexual couples.”
Masen Davis, Executive Director at Transgender Europe said:
“Earlier this year, Hungary made it impossible for trans people to change their names and legal gender marker....We call upon EU Commission President von der Leyen to address the rights of LGBT parents, the attempt to erase gender diverse children, and the ban on legal gender recognition in the Commission’s rule of law assessment and on-going Article 7 TEU proceedings against Hungary.”
Related to this, as reported previously by the CIVICUS Monitor, legal gender recognition for transgender and intersex persons was banned in Hungary in May 2020. However, in March 2021 Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled that a legal ban on changing gender does not apply retroactively. It stated that people who began changing their gender before the law came into effect must be allowed to complete the process. The Hatter society, Hungary's largest LGBTI rights organisation, said that it intends to challenge the constitutionality of Section 33 as a whole.
Media regulator acts over LGBTI advert
As documented by Mapping Media Freedom, on 4th March 2021, legal proceedings were brought against RTL Hungary media group by the Media Council of the National Media and Info Communications Authority (NMHH - Hungary’s media regulator) for broadcasting an advertisementwhich raised awareness about LGBTI families. The Council, which is made up of members appointed by the ruling Fidesz party, stated that it had received complaints about the advert which stated that it was not suitable for young children and should have been aired after 9pm for this reason. The Media Council can issue a fine of up to HUF 200 million (EUR 555,000) and also issue formal warnings. RTL, one of the few independent broadcasters left in Hungary, defended its decision to broadcast the advertisement, stating that it was impossible to air the advert solely to people over the age of 16. The Hatter Society said:
“We think this campaign video was an important part of the social dialogue. It does not contain items that would cause any disadvantage or harm to minors. The aim of the Media Authority is to silence LGBTI organisations so that there can be no meaningful social debate on this issue. ” (translated from Hungarian)