The Hungarian Parliament’s approval of a controversial emergency bill that allows journalists to be jailed for up to five years has raised the ire of international NGOs and led to a former UN ambassador calling for Hungary to be kicked out of the EU.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s so-called coronavirus bill, which he said was drafted to clamp down on fake news about the epidemic, will also grant him the power to rule by decree. The vote passed by 137 in favour to 53.
In their reaction, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) expressed their “grave concern” about the new emergency law and its implications for media freedom in Hungary. “EU, where are you?” it said in a tweet.
Similarly, OSCE Media Freedom Representative Harlem Desir said that he was seriously concerned with the new law. “The law risks penalising independent journalists rather than disseminators of disinformation,” he said.
Seriously concerned with new law in #Hungary, introducing 5-year jail terms for spreading falsehoods about #COVID19 & govt's response. The law risks penalizing independent journalists rather than disseminators of disinformation. See earlier statement: https://t.co/PdozyOaWnl
— OSCE media freedom (@OSCE_RFoM) March 30, 2020
The law allows Orbán to extend the country’s state of emergency indefinitely and would impose prison sentences of up to five years on those hindering measures that are aimed at containing the spread of the virus and on those spreading false information. The government declared a state of emergency on March 11 which was valid for 15 days.
The passing of the law was met with outrage on social media as former UN ambassador and foreign policy advisor Susan Rice said in a very blunt tweet: “Kick Hungary out of the EU”.
European Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen was also slammed for not explicitly calling out Hungary in her statement on emergency measures in the Member States following the passing of the bill.
“It’s of outmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values. Democracy cannot work without free and independent media. Respect of freedom of expression and legal certainty are essential in these uncertain times,” von der Leyen wrote on Twitter.
It's of outmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values. Democracy cannot work without free and independent media. Respect of freedom of expression and legal certainty are essential in these uncertain times.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) March 31, 2020
However, this was too indirect for some. “Why are you afraid to say the word ‘Hungary’?” asked Human Rights Watch European media director Andrew Stroehlein. The EU political party European United Left, also questioned von der Leyen, asking her if she was “too timid” to call our Orban as “an authoritarian who tramples all over democratic rights”.