The Fall Of Freedom Of Speech In Hungary

The 2018 annual Freedom in the World report run by Freedom House showed that Hungary has fallen from the status of ‘’a free country’’ to now only ‘’partly free’’ where it remains today. The fall is mainly due to the ascension to power of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz party, who have since taken control of most of Hungary’s regional media and have passed several detrimental laws for NGOs and academics.

As they currently control most of Hungary’s media, there has been minimum criticism and cover within the country of the many controversial actions the government has taken, such as a ban on gender and climate change studies, the acquisition of Hungary’s scientific and academic bodies, running an anti-migrant campaign, blocking the EU’s 2050 carbon neutrality goal and even blocking news on the coronavirus situation.

The latest would be the enforcement of emergency measures in response to the COVID-19 situation, which grants the far-right prime minister Viktor Orban, the power to suspend elections and existing laws, jail the creators of any news he deems to be misleading or fake, and simply rule by decree. Marton Gergely, an editor at the HVG magazine has stated that journalists are only “being branded and stigmatized” and that the new measures are only “about increasing pressure and portraying journalists as potential criminals.”

In 2020, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has stated that “emergency measures must not last indefinitely.” However, she has failed to bring up the fact that in Hungary, these have actually been instated indefinitely.

The situation has gotten so dire that the European parliament has even raised a vote to trigger Article 7 against Hungary in 2018 to recognize and address the threat to freedom of expression and democracy that Viktor Orban and the Fidesz party have created, but the vote just barely missed its required quota. Despite the call of up to 16 national and international press freedom and freedom of expression groups, no action has been taken by the European Parliament since.

One of the main reasons why the vote has not reached its required quota might be the lack of coverage of Viktor Orban’s freedom of speech and freedom of expression violations such as a ban on gender and climate change studies, the acquisition of Hungary’s scientific and academic bodies, running an anti-migrant campaign, blocking the EU’s 2050 carbon neutrality goal and many others. This lack of media coverage can be attributed to the fact that most of the nation’s media bodies are owned and run by Orban and his allies. Furthermore, any remaining independent news outlets are being denied advertisement revenue, forcing them to either ally with Orban or sell out to him. The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom has found that government funding and advertising in Hungary is oriented towards government-owned media.

Under Hungary’s current media laws, journalists that are loyal to Orban are promoted and given positions of power, while independent journalists or media outlets that publish critical articles on these parties are usually prosecuted and drowned in endless defamation lawsuits. Zselyke Csaky, the research director for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House has stated the media in Hungary is starting to “resemble state media under Communism because of the level of control and consolidation.”

On the other hand, the lack of response from the EU might be due to political reasons. For example, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party is currently part of the European People’s Party alongside other influential figures such as Angela Merkel, Leo Varadkar, and both the current and former presidents of the European Commission. In this case, the inactions on the EU’s part might be due to a fear of losing the influence of the European People’s Party. Mujtaba Rahman, the managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, has stated that in the EEP’s world, Orban holds and contributes “a large number of votes” and isolating him can indeed be detrimental to the overall group’s influence.

The lack of response to Viktor Orban’s regime can simply be brought down to the inefficient nature of the EU’s regulatory system. As the EU cannot single-handedly isolate and punish a state, its only course of action is actioning Article 7. However, this can only be actioned if it gets enough votes from the European Parliament, which with the European People’s Party’s support and the support of other rising authoritarian states such as Poland, proves to be useless against Viktor Orban.

There have been several outcries from international and Hungarian NGOs regarding Viktor Orban’s regime. For example, The Standing Committee of the Conference of INGOs alongside many more national and international LGBTI NGOs and groups has criticized and urged the European parliament and Hungarian government to review and drop Article 30 in Hungary. This article makes it impossible for individuals with gender reassignment surgery to have their gender recognized in any area of life. In the article, the Hungarian government stated that they wish to define gender as the “biological sex based on primary sex characteristics and chromosomes.”

All of these cries fall deaf on the EU’s ears who are currently unable to address the fall of freedom in Hungary by isolating and criminalizing Orban and they rely solely on the reporting and actions of the local community in Hungary. In this case, the lack of financial and community support for these independent outlets can be addressed by the EU through IPA projects similar to those created for the Western Balkans, which focus on creating a reward system for objective media and raise national awareness of media corruption.

The 2016 European Parliament study has shown that previous actions taken by the EU were unsuccessful and recommends focusing on smaller venues rather than on freedom of expression as the driving variable. Perhaps contacting and supporting the existing institutions that focus on media regulations and independent journalists and media outlets that continue to issue objective reports would be a good starting point. For example, with Orban’s recent crackdown on Index, one of the countries last remaining independent news sites, it would be beneficial to show international support for the recently dismissed members of the news outlet.

One of the dismissed members is the former editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull, who has been dismissed under accusations of violating the current media laws. While Dull has been recognized by the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium media conference for his efforts in maintaining press freedom in Hungary, the only current way for him to do so is by setting up a dual-language Facebook page for him and all the dismissed members of Index to inform the world of their future actions. This stands as a strong call for the EU to establish better protection and support systems for Hungary’s and the entirety of Europe’s journalists, as with the current lack of funding for independent media outlets in Hungary, it will be very hard for Dull to establish a new outlet. Veronika Munk, the deputy editor of Index has stated that “Those few critical media outlets that depend on advertisement will lose important income, so it is unclear what will remain of what’s left from the critical press once this crisis is over.”

A legal alternative for the EU would be taking Hungary to court through the European Court of Justice. Previous convictions through the European Court of Justice have resulted in fines of up to 100,000 euros a day and this might be enough to deter Viktor Orban from imposing his authoritarian regime. Taking a country to court will end being a lengthy process and the EU might only be able to enjoy the results once it is too late. However, even if the process is lengthy, it will still serve as a strong symbol of support for independent journalists in the country and throughout the world, who are currently fighting for press freedom and freedom of expression.

Following European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s criticism of emergency measures imposed during COVID-19, several international organizations have been outraged at the omittance of the situation in Hungary. The 13 EU governments should reissue a statement in which Viktor Orban is formally asked to declare an end date for his “emergency powers,” as well as question him regarding the crackdown on journalism during COVID-19.

Timea Putnoki

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