Hungary’s new coronavirus legislation could have journalists jailed

Media watchdogs warn that new laws against disinformation could impact journalists in their attempts to report on Covid-19

Illustration by Anastasia Gviniashvili

Hungary’s parliament recently voted with a two-thirds majority to give the nation’s right-wing government new powers to rule by decree with no time limit. This has led to widespread accusations that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party are attempting to turn the nation into the world’s first coronavirus autocracy. 

A number of bodies including the United Nations, the Council of Europe and Amnesty International Hungary were quick to criticize the new legislation. In a joint statement, Hungarian NGOs recently responded, “We need strong rule of law safeguards and proportional and necessary emergency measures, not unlimited government rule by decree.” 

Meanwhile, media watchdogs, including Reporters Without Borders, have voiced concerns about how new provisions against coronavirus disinformation could impact journalists in their attempts to report on Covid-19.

Under the new legislation, anyone spreading “false” or “distorted” information that “alarms” the public or undermines its “successful protection” will face up to five years in prison. 

Peter Erdelyi, an investigative reporter and editor at the news website 444.hu, believes that larger Hungarian media organizations are well placed to stand up to the new measures, but adds that smaller independent media outlets without a strong legal footing are in a much more vulnerable position. He also points out that the new legislation will create an increasingly hostile environment for journalism.

“We have lawyers and experienced editors, but we also have young people in our office. When they hear that a new law is introduced, and they turn on the TV and hear that people are calling for their arrest — it will affect them,” Erdelyi said during a Skype call. 

He also noted that journalists at 444.hu have witnessed a spike in harassment from members of the public since the legislation was adopted. These range from insults to death threats. “Between 2014 and 2019, we got one threat every two to three months. Now we get one every second or third day,” Erdelyi said. “Nothing physical has happened yet, but we are getting more threats.”

Erdelyi is worried that the legislation could affect access to information and overall public discourse in Hungary. By way of example, he cites a recently published story by Legeza Örs, in which the renowned Hungarian physicist shared his experience of first being misdiagnosed and then having to wait two weeks to be tested for Covid-19. In the article, Legeza wrote, “I hope I will not go to jail for spreading fake news or panic.”

Gergo Saling, an editor at the Hungarian investigative journalism center Direkt36, says that the new laws also shift public attention away from the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and towards a more general debate about media freedom. 

“A lot of the coverage focuses on the law, instead of focusing on medical equipment, and what is the current situation in hospitals,” he told me by telephone.

Hungary is not alone in using the coronavirus pandemic to establish new laws on disinformation. Wide-ranging legislation introduced in both Azerbaijan and Bulgaria has prompted fears for press freedom. The U.K. government has also set up a special unit to counter fake news, while South Africa has criminalized the dissemination of Covid-19-related disinformation.  

The true intention behind these measures varies from country to country and is generally reflective of individual government records on media freedom. Since 2013, Hungary has fallen 31 places on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. 

Attila Mong, a Berlin-based Hungarian who works as Europe correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me via email that “in recent years, the government in Hungary has systematically dismantled media independence and used verbal attacks, lawsuits, and other means to harass critical journalists.”

He added that the new legislation “is only vaguely defined and therefore authorities could use it to initiate criminal proceedings” against journalists, even when they are telling the truth.  

“Government officials and pro-government media outlets have accused independent media organizations of spreading false information when they have questioned the government’s approach to handling the coronavirus crisis,” Mong said.  

On March 20, Márton Békés and Gábor Megadja, two Fidesz-aligned pundits took part in a talk show aired by the pro-government news channel HírTV. Békés referred to the independent press as “coronavirus collaborators,” while Megadja said that journalists responsible for articles critical of the state should be “arrested in this crisis situation.”  

Hungarian opposition politicians have accused the government of launching a divisive campaign that aims to blame rival voices for the pandemic.

Anna Julia Donath, a member of the European Parliament for the Hungarian centrist party Momentum told me via email, “They are even saying that some of the members of the opposition are rooting for the virus.” 

Donath also believes that these attacks form part of a longer game plan for Orban and Fidesz, aimed at tightening their grip on power. “They want to win the 2022 parliamentary elections no matter what it takes,” she wrote.

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Matej Voda

Matej Voda writes about government surveillance, popular culture and disinformation. He is based in Prague.