Hungary’s government has passed a law that grants nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban special powers to take extraordinary measures to tackle the coronavirus crisis, sparking concerns that it could lead to an “abuse of power”.
The law passed on Monday indefinitely extends the state of emergency introduced on March 11, suspends Parliament and introduces jail terms of up to five years for intentionally spreading misinformation that hinders the government response to the pandemic.
Orban’s Fidesz party, which has a two-thirds majority in Parliament, pushed through the legislation despite opposition from other political parties, who had demanded a time limit or sunset clause on the law.
Hungary has recorded 15 virus-related deaths and 447 infections, much lower than neighbouring Austria and other Western European countries.
But actual figures may be higher due to the country’s relatively low testing rate.
Hungary has conducted fewer than a quarter of the number of tests that neighbouring Austria has, despite having a larger population. About 13,301 people have been tested in a population of roughly 9.8 million.
Critics say that the open-ended rules are vulnerable to abuse and Members of the European Parliament have called on the European Commission to launch an inquiry into the law.
Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, a French MEP who represents the European parliament on Hungary and the rule of law said: “A state of national emergency always comes with a clear deadline. The fact that there is no deadline and Orban can rule by decree, unlimitedly if he wants to, is very worrying. The core democratic thing has been broken.”
Mate Szabo, a director at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, a Budapest based human rights NGO, added: “The government will have an uncontrolled possibility to rule the country, which means the abuse of power may be much easier.”
Orban’s spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs, meanwhile, said the law was “quite reasonable” and “lives are at stake” in a Twitter post.
Politicians, activists and journalists fear the law could exacerbate the increasingly restrictive space for media freedom, in which pro-government outlets dominate.
The right-wing populist Fidesz party has “all but consolidated its control over the media, and has built a parallel reality where government messages and disinformation reinforce each other,” Freedom House, a US-based NGO, wrote in its 2019 report.
Ervin Guth, an editor at Szabad Pecs (Free Pecs), one of Hungary’s few independent outlets, feared that journalists could be punished for writing something true about the epidemic but which the government sees as “causing panic and or setting back their efforts.”
Over the past week, the Orban government, aided by pro-government media, has accused independent media outlets of spreading “fake news” for questioning its preparation and handling of the crisis, such as whether doctors and nurses have proper protective gear, according to the International Press Institute.
Guth said that “government communication is not trustworthy. We rarely get answers from official sources, so it’s very hard to verify information. The independent press tries to identify and localise confirmed cases of coronavirus while officials deny to comment on this. We had several, well-sourced articles on this topic, but due to the new law, it’s quite possible that we won’t have more. This is the climate where we have to work, and we fear that this is getting worse.”
Fears that the government may misuse the new law is “legitimate and can be grounded” said Szabo, claiming that the governing party has used its power in the past for “it’s own political interests”.
Critics have said that the Fidesz party, which took power in 2010, has eroded judicial independence, appointed staunch loyalists to key positions and helped oligarchs to buy up most independent media.
Szabo said, “This makes the new powers even more alarming.”
Constitutional reforms over the past ten years have made parliament “weaker and weaker and more and more powerless for the majority”, says Delbos-Corfield. “The law was not completely unforeseen.”