The emergency powers, passed by Hungary’s parliament on Monday, permit nationalist leader Viktor Orbán to rule by decree and impose jail terms of up to five years on those hindering measures to curb the spread of the virus or the government’s response to it.
The Society of Editors warned last week that governments were using the pandemic as a means of clamping down on the flow of information and attempting to control the narrative around Covid-19 and that more needed to be done to ensure that officials worked with the media in order to tackle the virus.
The Society has warned that alongside the danger of new powers now being used by officials to target journalists critical of the government in Hungary, the law risks setting a precedent for other governments to misuse emergency powers to clamp down on the freedom of the press.
Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors said: “The decision by the Hungarian parliament to pass emergency legislation, without time limit, allowing the leader to rule by decree is deeply concerning.
“Over recent years democratic norms in Hungary have gradually been eroded and new powers to introduce jail terms of up to five years for those deemed to be “distorting” the facts and spreading misinformation around Covid-19 raises legitimate concerns that the measures could be used against journalists critical of the government. This crisis should not be used to censor the press – the ability of an independent media to hold the powerful to account has never been more important.
“The indefinite nature of the new powers granted in Hungary present a real risk that this clampdown will outlive the current health emergency. If not now, the laws could be used in the future to stifle criticism and debate. Hungary now risks setting a dangerous precedent for other countries worldwide who may be considering using similar powers to clamp down on freedom of expression during this crisis.
“All governments must ensure that checks and balances are put in place to safeguard the rights of journalists and the vital role of the media during this time. It is imperative that countries do not use these extraordinary times as a means by which to clamp down on press freedoms and the public’s right to know.”
Over the past week, the Orban government, aided by pro-government media, has accused independent media outlets of spreading “fake news” for asking questions about the government’s preparedness and handling of the crisis.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the International Press Institute, have condemned the passing of the new powers and the threat the legislation poses to freedom of expression in the country. The remaining independent media in Hungary are currently being forced to cut staff and budgets amid the coronavirus pandemic while media loyal to the government continue to receive taxpayers’ money, said the Reuters news agency.
Ahead of the vote, the Council of Europe had said that the state of emergency in Hungary posed a risk to human rights in the country.
In a letter to Victor Orbán from the Council’s Secretary General on March 24 the government was warned that emergency powers must be proportionate.
It said: “Indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed and that the emergency measures restricting fundamental human rights are strictly proportionate to the threat which they are supposed to counter.
“Also, democratic debate in national parliaments, in the media and the internet, as well as access to official information and documents are essential elements of any free and democratic order and of particular importance in crisis situations to maintain trust and confidence within society.”
According to The Guardian, critics of the bill have said it is unclear the government can be trusted to rescind the measures when the pandemic is over, pointing out that a state of emergency related to the migration crisis, brought in in 2016, is still in force.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and other press freedom groups have also condemned the emergency powers now passed by Hungary and warned that they risk a complete repression of press freedom in the country.
The International Press Institute announced last week that it had launched a website monitoring attacks on the press during the coronavirus pandemic.