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Hungarian Government Suspends Democracy

Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister, Hungary in September, 2017. (Photo: Annika Haas, EU2017EE)
Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister, Hungary in September, 2017. (Photo: Annika Haas, EU2017EE)

“This is not about fighting disinformation. The Hungarian government is taking advantage of a health emergency to accelerate its already extensive control over news and information in the country.”

Yesterday, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law by 137-53 that gives Prime Minister Viktor Orbán emergency powers to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The country’s state of emergency was also extended indefinitely.

Orbán’s nationalist Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and it was able to push through the law despite strong opposition.

Not only does the law suspend Parliament, but it also gives the government the power to jail people for up to five years for spreading information that hurts the government’s response to the crisis. Human rights organizations and opposition parties within Hungary had been ringing the alarm about the immense powers the law gives the government.

As of Monday’s vote, Hungary had 492 confirmed coronavirus cases with 16 deaths, but the numbers are feared to be much higher due to a lack of testing.

Independent Media in Danger

Press freedom in Hungary has been under attack long before the outbreak of the coronavirus, and many within the European Union are upset with the path of their fellow member state.

“Press freedom could fall victim to the coronavirus,” Miklos Hargitai, chair of the Hungarian Journalists Association said to Reuters.

The few independent journalists left in the country are worried that the unprecedented powers will allow the government to quash any dissent or criticism of the government’s policy.

“This is not about fighting disinformation. The Hungarian government is taking advantage of a health emergency to accelerate its already extensive control over news and information in the country,” said International Press Institute’s Deputy Director Scott Griffen.

The government has already accused independent journalists of “fake news” for probing into the government’s response to the crisis.

Pssst, while you're here...

Other international media watchdogs have expressed concern about the developments in Hungary including Human Rights Watch and Columbia Journalism Review. And, Hungary is not the only country to take measures to limit press freedom during the coronavirus pandemic, South Africa also criminalized ‘disinformation’, and worries range from Honduras, Egypt, Turkey, and more.

What makes Hungary somewhat unique is its position in the European Union. The European Parliament put a statement out last week that said they plan to stand up for democracy in Hungary.

Many member states have had reservations about Hungary for years, and the latest crisis will only deepen the divide.  Combined with the growing North-South divide in the political union, Hungary and its flouting of press freedom could serve as a precursor to further exits from the EU.

Illiberal State

In 2014, Orbán famously made a speech where he called Hungary’s state project “an illiberal state.” He continued, “it [Hungary] does not reject the fundamental principles of liberalism such as freedom, and I could list a few more, but it does not make this ideology the central element of state organization, but instead includes a different, special, national approach.”

Orbán’s illiberal state is enjoying its most ‘illiberal’ period with a complete corrosion of press freedom and democracy. And, it comes at a time with an already tenuous relationship with the European Union.

In March 2019, Orbán’s Fidesz party was booted from the center-right coalition European People’s Party in the European Parliament. Orbán and his brand of Hungarian nationalism are a pariah within the Union, but European politicians have failed to convince Orbán to take a different approach.

So, for the foreseeable future, Hungary’s democracy is on hold and independent media in the country is at greater risk than ever.

And with most European states tied up in their own individual coronavirus crises and an impending coronavirus-induced recession waiting in the wings, Hungary’s illiberalism may take a backseat with the halls of the European Union.

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Alec Pronk

Alec is a freelance writer with an interest in both geopolitics and American domestic issues. He finished his Master's degree with a critical focus on government counterterrorism policies.

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