Máté Kocsis, the mayor of the drug-affected 8th district of Budapest, did his best to have the needle exchange program operated by the organization Blue Point closed down. He finally succeeded, only weeks before the release of a report by the Office of the Commissioner of Fundamental Rights (the ombudsman's office) that criticizes the closure of the program while pointing out its health benefits.
A good report, but late
The report pointed out that, as the only cost-effective means of disease prevention among drug users, the exchange of needles and syringes constitutes an integral part not only of the EU’s official drug strategy, but also of the national drug strategy of the Hungarian state. Obviously, the spread of any serious disease – be it hepatitis C or HIV – would not be contained among drug users but would threaten the rest of society as well. Therefore, the report states that the suppression of the needle exchange program violated the rights to a healthy environment not only in the case of drug users but of us all. The campaign recently launched against the ombudsman by the government-friendly media is an attempt to divert public attention from this fact.
The report, containing the results of an investigation started after a submission was made by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) last November, was received by the organization two days before its publication, according to the rules of the process. It has generated mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, I welcome the fact that, after considering all the circumstances, the ombudsman has reached basically the same conclusions and proposed similar recommendations to decision makers regarding the need to support risk reduction programs as HCLU did. On the other hand, it was a disappointment that the report was published so late, several weeks after the needle exchange program of Blue Point had to close down. As a matter of fact, I informed the Office of the Commissioner of Fundamental Rights concerning new developments in the matter and the deterioration of the situation, which was likely to lead to the closure of the needle exchange program, as early as late spring. The report would have been much more relevant back then than it is today.
What I did not expect was that I would be accused of managing to have the report published during the currently running local elections, by having the ombudsman's office on a string. The newspaper acting as a government mouthpiece explicitly alleged that HCLU was controlling the ombudsman. How did they come to this conclusion? The correspondence HCLU had with that office last spring either may have been leaked out, or, even worse, was obtained by secret service methods. I was accused of having illicit, confidential relations with representatives of the office, which allowed me to become familiar with the contents of the report well before its publication. It was even assumed that the report had actually been ready in May, and its publication in September was actually motivated by political reasons with respect to the upcoming local elections. HCLU was said to have been informed of the date of publication beforehand.
These statements are false. All that the correspondence reveals is that the representative of the ombudsman's office received information about the developments related to the submission made by HCLU, and that HCLU tried to find out about plans concerning the publication of the report that they considered rather timely. The familiar tone of HCLU’s letter is not unusual in professional circles and by no means suggests that HCLU is in a position to control the ombudsman. The ombudsman's office responded in spring saying they only had a draft report ready, and the final version would not be issued before the end of June. HCLU did not, in fact, access the draft report before September.
The fact that Máté Kocsis was having a press conference on the very same day of the publication of the assaultive newspaper article, and a key topic of the press conference was the accusation that "the drug lobby has nestled into the ombudsman's office" puts the matter straight: HCLU has apparently become a sidekick character in a planned slander campaign, the actual target of which is the ombudsman's office, which dared to confront a potentate of the ruling regime.
The phantasm of some secret conspiracy
Sadly, HCLU was challenged precisely because it was doing a good job, complying with legal measures. As a matter of fact, section 2. § (5) of act CXI of 2011 requires the ombudsman to cooperate with legal defense organizations. Complaints and submissions made by such organizations constitute a fundamental support allowing the ombudsman to perform its legal duties. This does not contradict the requirement that the ombudsman's office should form its opinion independently, which then sometimes differs from, and sometimes coincides with, the position taken by legal defense agencies. In a European country, it is quite natural that an organization having made a submission should start corresponding with the office and informing it regarding any developments or, horribile dictu, even negotiates with it the date of the publication of some important document in order to increase the efficiency of the office’s “awareness-raising and informing activity,” as prescribed in the law.
It can only happen in a country suffocating from political paranoia that the dialogue and cooperation between the ombudsman and a human rights NGO evokes the phantasm of some secret conspiracy, and that the ombudsman is supposed to feel ashamed for criticizing a mayor who has committed an infringement.
This recent government-managed media hysteria forms part of the series of attacks targeting independent institutions, the free press and civil society in Hungary. The absurd politically motivated challenge to the ombudsman is supposed to send a message of warning to civil servants in public offices and institutions, who may still entertain critical thoughts. The message addressed to them is this: You should give up on the illusion of working as an independent organization, criticizing the deeds of the government and cooperating with blacklisted NGOs. The steamroller of the new party state is trying to submerge anything in its way that it is unable to control directly. It is driven by anxiety and fear from social solidarity and cooperation among people still committed to democracy. The rulers are trying to divide and create antagonisms among those they regard as threatening for having the potential to rouse people from passivity. Anybody criticizing the ruling Fidesz party these days – NGOs, the ombudsman, the Norway Grants or even the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg - are all considered to contribute to an international conspiracy against Hungary.
The crazy behavior of “Fideszocracy” will not be satisfied with running down needle exchange programs and legal defense agencies. It is in the interest of us all to stop its destructive career.
Péter Sárosi, HCLU