February 21, 2020

Criminal charge revived against Hungarian investigative reporter

András Dezső / DR
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for more transparency and due process in the two-year-old criminal proceedings in Hungary against András Dezső, an investigative reporter who is facing up to three years in prison on a newly revived but baseless charge of misuse of personal data.

The case goes back to March 2018, when Dezső wrote an article for Index, one of Hungary’s few independent news websites, about Natalie Contessa af Sandeberg, an activist with Swedish and Hungarian dual nationality who had made controversial claims about the negative impact of migrants in Sweden in an interview for M1, a Hungarian state TV channel known for taking an anti-migrant line.


From Swedish public records available to everyone, Dezső discovered that she had been convicted in Sweden on seven counts of defamation, harassment and “violating public trust” and had been ordered to pay large fines. He also discovered that she had lied about the circumstances in which had lived in Sweden and was living in Hungary.


Dezső’s article in Index did not give Contessa af Sandberg’s name but the website posted the video of the interview, in which she was easily identifiable, and she responded by suing him for “misuse of personal data.”


The lawsuit led to criminal charges carrying a possible three-year jail term under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This would not be the first time that Hungarian courts have misused the GDPR to censor journalists. The Hungarian edition of the magazine Forbes was recently pulled from newsstands at the behest of the Hungarian energy drink company Hell Energy on the grounds that an article had named one of its owners without its permission.


A judge initially ruled that the case against Dezső did not merit a trial and that he should simply be issued a warning. At the same time, pro-government media outlets and far-right activities launched a virulent campaign accusing him of publishing fake news about Contessa af Sandeberg.


To clear his name, Dezső insisted on the case being heard in court. A hearing was held in April 2019 and the court found him not guilty of any crime. However, the Budapest prosecutor’s office successfully appealed against this decision two weeks ago, on 6 February, on the grounds of a procedural error (the lack of a preliminary hearing). And so the case has been reopened.


An EU member country cannot allow a veteran journalist to be convicted for doing his job in a normal manner and simply using publicly available information,” RSF editor-in-chief Pauline Adès-Mével said. “Democracy demands due process with respect for a diversity of viewpoints. A proper trial must finally be held so that András Dezső can be acquitted.


In late 2019, Dezső was the target of repeated attacks by pro-government media and an antisemitic smear campaign in connection with another case.

Hungary is ranked 87th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index