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If I wrote this article in Hungary, I could go to prison

The Hungarian Parliament this week voted by a large majority to suspend democracy and press freedom indefinitely.

The reason given is to control the coronavirus. But it’s clear that the real reason is to control the people, and to ensure that the Hungarian government under the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, is not subject to any criticism or challenge.

The new emergency decree effectively puts Mr Orbán in sole command of Hungary for as long as he sees fit.

Nobody knows when the emergency rule will end. It will not be up to Parliament, but the exclusive decision of Mr Orbán.

The newly adopted piece of legislation, signed into law with lightning speed, gives the Prime Minister sweeping new powers, including:

▪ Imprisonment of one to five years for disseminating news or gossip deemed to be false about the #Covid19 situation;

▪ By-elections and referendums cannot be held during the period of national emergency;

▪ Imprisonment of up to three years for anyone who hinders authorities in quarantining individuals or in the enforcement and monitoring of quarantines.

Who will decide whether a journalist or newspaper has published ‘false’ information? There will be no independent arbiter. It will be the exclusive judgement of the Hungarian government.

So, my article here, if published in Hungary, could land me in prison for up to five years. Not for writing falsehoods (which is never my intention) but for criticising the Hungarian government.

No doubt a few of my detractors will think prison could be a suitable place for me, if only to shut me up.

But anyone who supports democracy, and a free press, will be horrified by this dictatorial move in Hungary.

Most people (I hope!) who disagree with my views would still stand up for my right to express them – as I would theirs.

Most sensible people will agree that in times of severe crisis, such as the global Covid-19 pandemic, it’s important that governments have emergency powers to enable them to act quickly, to protect their nations and people.

But in true democracies, emergency decrees are usually only for a limited period, without the need to muzzle the press at the same time.

▪ EMERGENCY DECREES IN OTHER COUNTRIES

In the UK, there was alarm when the government wanted to bring in emergency laws for a period of two years because of the pandemic, without any opportunity for Parliamentary review. 

That seemed draconian enough, especially as it is deemed hopeful that the pandemic will be over before two years are up.

Fortunately, after considerable pressure, the UK government backed down and revised their Coronavirus Bill to be in force for only six months, after which our Parliament would have to give its consent before it could be extended.

Even six months without Parliamentary review is considered a long time. In Spain and Portugal, for example, emergency rule can only persist for 15 days, after which Parliament must agree to any extension.

▪ EU MEMBERSHIP

In Hungary, their emergency rule has no foreseeable end. In theory, it could last for years. 

What makes this more shocking is that Hungary is not some tin-pot dictatorship. It’s a member of the European Union, whose strict membership requirements are democracy, open governance, human rights, a free press, and the rights of minorities.

As I wrote the other day, if Hungary was applying to join the EU now, it’s membership would be flatly rejected. One wonders if Hungary forgot the principles to which it signed up to when it applied to join back in 1993 following a national referendum, shortly after the fall of Communism. 

For example, when Spain applied to join the European Community in 1961, its application was unanimously rejected by the then six EEC members – because Spain was a dictatorship, and not a democracy.

Unfortunately, apart from suspension and the loss of voting rights, and the imposition of heavy fines, there is no mechanism under EU law to expel a nation from membership.

Clearly, that was an oversight when EU member states unanimously voted for so many new countries to join all at the same time.

▪ HUMAN RIGHTS

Hungary is also a member of The Council of Europe – Europe’s leading human rights organisation, entirely separate from the EU. 

The Council has expressed alarm that journalists covering the pandemic in Hungary are facing a variety of sanctions, including the risk, under the new laws, of prison terms of up to five years for spreading “false information”.

(Concern has also been expressed by impositions on journalists covering the pandemic in the Russian Federation, also a member of the Council).

The Council today issued this statement:

‘There is no doubt that governments are facing unprecedented challenges during this pandemic. 

‘This cannot however be an excuse to clamp down on the press and thus restrict people’s access to information. 

‘Journalists and media actors carry out indispensable work that serves the public good. Their work must be protected, not undermined.’

The Council urged member states:

‘Measures to combat disinformation must never prevent journalists and media actors from carrying out their work or lead to content being unduly blocked on the Internet. 

‘Those countries which have introduced restrictions that do not meet these standards must repeal them as a matter of urgency.’

[Source]

But it’s clear that Hungary is not going to follow the Council’s call to ‘repeal’ their legislation against journalism.

▪ A DECADE OF DECLINE

The situation in Hungary has been in decline for some time. 

For the past decade, the Hungarian Prime Minister has consolidated media ownership in the hands of his allies who now own around 80% of the country’s media outlets, making sure that journalists only support the government whilst tarnishing its opponents.

An independent organisation, the Committee to Protect Journalists, reported last week that it has documented how the Hungarian government has:

‘systematically dismantled media independence and used verbal attacks, lawsuits, and other means to harass critical journalists in Hungary’.

[Source]

Another independent organisation, The International Press Institute, has accused the Hungarian government of ‘dismantling press freedom’. The Institute declared:

‘Since 2010, the Hungarian government has systematically dismantled media independence, freedom and pluralism, distorted the media market and divided the journalistic community in the country, achieving a degree of media control unprecedented in an EU member state.’

[Source]

Before Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010, Hungary enjoyed a high degree of press freedom, after the country successfully transitioned from Communist authoritarian rule to Western-style democracy.

Explained Budapest-based investigative journalist Szabolcs Panyi, who started his career just before Mr Orbán’s Fidesz party was voted into office:

“It was very diverse and we had a booming online news sphere.

“We had lots of weeklies, monthlies, and multiple dailies – left-wing, right-wing and liberal.

That was all to dramatically change.

▪ MEDIA CONTROL

The investigative website Atlatszo estimates that more than 500 Hungarian media titles are now controlled by Mr Orbán and his friends; in 2015, only 23 of them were.

[Source]

The New York Times reported:

‘One morning in 2016, journalists at Nepszabadsag, one of Hungary’s biggest dailies, were simply locked out of their offices… the paper had just run a series of articles exposing government corruption.’

In September 2018, the European Parliament voted to punish Hungary for defying EU rules on democracy, corruption, and civil rights, including media freedom. It was the first time that the Parliament had invoked the Article 7 procedure against a member state.

The most severe punishment under Article 7 is stripping a country of its voting rights in the EU, but that hasn’t happened just yet.

The vote was carried with the support of 448 MEPs, narrowly clearing the required two-thirds majority.

The Guardian reported at the time that the Dutch MEP who led the process, Judith Sargentini, was given a standing ovation as the result was announced.

She said:

“The Hungarian people deserve better. They deserve freedom of speech, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice and equality, all of which are enshrined in the European treaties.”

▪ DEATH OF DEMOCRACY

But as this week’s new emergency law demonstrates, Hungary has not heeded the European Parliament’s call, but is instead going in the opposite direction.

Now, as well as press intimidation and insidious closure of independent media outlets that’s been the hallmark of Orbán’s 10-year rule, the Covid-19 pandemic has given him an opportunistic new weapon: the ability to imprison journalists for up to five years.

In his daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, under the headline ‘The death of Hungary’s democracy is a worldwide press-freedom warning ‘, Jon Allsop wrote yesterday:

‘All this has happened in a European Union member state. Since the power grab passed, liberals around the bloc—including lawmakers from the European Parliament and Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister of Italy—have insisted that Hungary can’t remain a member state under these conditions.’

Yesterday, European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen said she was “particularly concerned with the situation in Hungary.”

Also yesterday, 13 centre-right parties, from 11 countries, called for Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party to be kicked out of the European People’s Party, Europe’s largest political alliance.

Their letter to Donald Tusk, now the President of the EPP (formerly President of the European Council) called the new emergency rule in Hungary ‘a clear violation of the founding principles of liberal democracy and European values.’

[Source]

But all that was yesterday. The question for today and tomorrow: How does the EU handle a rogue member state, when it only has the legal mechanism to suspend, but not to expel?

▪ MY VIEW

Brexit alone would not bring down the EU. Nor would the Covid-19 pandemic. But the contemporaneous combination of Brexit, Covid-19 and the rise of oppressive, undemocratic populism within its own member states, could lead to the fall of the entire EU.

And that would be an abhorrent tragedy for our entire continent, all who live in it, and the world.

This is the time for European leaders who value democracy, freedom and Parliamentary rule to be strong, visionary, bold and urgently decisive. There is so much now at stake.

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