Journalists in Hungary have accused the government of barring the media from reporting on the full extent of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, according to Al Jazeera. An open letter was published by 28 of Hungary’s independent media outlets which said that journalists had been barred from entering hospitals and prohibited from speaking with medical staff. This has made it impossible for them to report accurately on the unfolding health crisis.
Al Jazeera reports that Hungary now has the world’s deadliest outbreak of coronavirus, having reported 302 deaths on Tuesday, March 30th; the highest number it has reported since the start of the pandemic in 2020. Doctors told Reuters that hospitals are over capacity and are being overrun. However, Hungary’s right-wing nationalist government denies this, and state-run media continues to depict that the situation at hospitals is under control.
The Hungarian government, run by the right-wing populist Fidesz party and led by prime minister Viktor Orbán, has taken on increasingly autocratic characteristics since they were elected to power in 2010, despite Hungary technically being a democracy and a member state of the European Union. The government has seemingly used the pandemic as an opportunity to grant itself more power, with Hungarian parliament voting by a two thirds majority (which Fidesz holds) to grant the government powers to bypass parliament and govern without checks and balances in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Viktor Orbán and his party have especially cracked down on the area of press freedom during the coronavirus pandemic by passing a law that criminalizes the spread of misinformation that is deemed to undermine the government’s fight against the virus. Without having any check on the ruling Fidesz party’s power, deciding who is spreading misinformation becomes completely up to them. “This is a dark day for press freedom in Hungary,” said Scott Griffen, deputy director of the International Press Institute (IPI). “Viktor Orbán now has yet another tool in his arsenal for silencing what remains of the country’s independent press.”
This policy is gravely reflected in the ongoing situation of journalists being unable to report on the developing coronavirus outbreak across the country. The letter which was published in 28 of Hungary’s independent new outlets claimed that “doctors and nurses are not free to talk to the public, while journalists are not allowed in hospitals, so we cannot assess what happens there.” On March 30th, the Council of Europe said that Hungarian journalists and media workers are experiencing increasing problems when covering the pandemic.
In response, the government of Hungary has denied these claims. Members of the government said that fake news was being spread in order to embarrass the country’s healthcare system. Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs stated that “we must use hospitals to heal, not shoot footage. Hungarian doctors and nurses perform exceptionally. Let them work!”
Hungary’s crackdown on the free press―especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when transparency of information is imperative―is wrong and undemocratic. According to Al Jazeera, many doctors have warned that news coverage that does not show the full extent of the health crisis could make the coronavirus situation worse. Hungary’s citizens deserve to be shown truthful information about the extent of the public health crisis in their country and denying them of this is not only unfair but also dangerous and could cost lives. The government should loosen its laws around news reporting on the coronavirus pandemic to ensure that journalists can accurately and transparently provide information on the situation to the public. By doing so, they could be saving lives.
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