After yet another smear campaign against independent media, this time accusing them of publishing disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had a “coronavirus” law passed this week, allowing him rule by decree during the state of emergency for an indefinite period. In particular, the legislation includes a provision for sentences of up to five years in prison for spreading fake news.
The courts will have the last word on any possible sanctions, the more complacent ones towards Orbán will say. But in reality it is the government that can, at the outset, arbitrarily decide whether a media report is true or false. Thus, the new law allows the government to exercise direct control over newsrooms that are not toeing its line in their reporting. As a result, the law threatens to eliminate the country’s remaining independent media space, which has already been badly weakened, and to introduce a strict system of censorship under the pretext of combatting the pandemic.
Nonetheless, it was the government and pro-government media that initially underestimated the danger of the coronavirus and then accused migrants of importing it into Hungary. The independent media have been much more responsible in their coverage of the epidemic. But when they highlighted the mistakes made by the government in its handling of the crisis, a wave of hate was unleashed against them.
A pro-government news site and the state media accused the independent news sites Index.hu et 24.hu of spreading false information about the pandemic. A speaker in a debate programme on the commercial TV channel HírTV attacked “certain opposition channels that don’t defend the Hungarian nation”, these “coronavirus collaborators,” while another speaker called for the “arrest” of their journalists. Their wishes can now legally be satisfied.
“This Orwellian law introduces a full-blown information police state in the heart of Europe,” said Pavol Szalai, Head of European Union and Balkans Desk at RSF. “All European institutions must mobilize to preserve what is left of press freedom in Hungary.”
Orbán’s law is clearly opposed to the European values enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) as well as to the fundamental rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. EU institutions must use all mechanisms at their disposal, especially the procedure according to Article 7 of the TEU, to prevent the government from transforming Hungary into an anti-democratic regime which will put an end to press freedom. The Council of Europe should meanwhile engage in a dialogue with Budapest with the aim of getting the law repealed. These requests are specified in open letters sent by organizations defending press freedom, including RSF, to the leaders of the EU and the Council of Europe.
Hungary is ranked 87th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2019 World Press Freedom Index, 14 places lower than in 2018.