Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, leader of right-wing nationalist party Fidesz, has responded to the coronavirus crisis by pushing through sweeping emergency laws that have no time limit and have enormous potential to limit media freedom.
These laws essentially allow Orbán to rule by decree, which presents a huge threat to democracy and freedom of expression. While Index acknowledges that extraordinary measures need to be taken to protect lives, the passing of emergency laws of this nature for an indefinite time period was described in an Index statement as “an abuse of power”.
Under the emergency laws, journalists can be imprisoned for up to five years for publishing what the authorities consider to be falsehoods about the outbreak or measures taken to control it. But what exactly constitutes falsehoods is open to interpretation.
As Index notes, Hungary already has “one of the worst free speech records in Europe”. This further blow to journalists’ ability to report freely and objectively on the actions taken by the government is crippling for press freedom. It follows a pattern of state authorities infringing on press freedom under the guise of quashing “fake news” that Index has recorded happening globally in the wake of the crisis.
Transparency about the official numbers of those infected and those who have died from Covid-19 is critical for public safety. The scale of the outbreak will inform public behaviour and support for health services. Authoritarian regimes around the world such as North Korea and Turkmenistan have reported zero cases, the implausibility of which suggests censorship of the real figures by these countries’ despotic leaders.
Orbán is on the road to joining these leaders as, under the emergency laws, journalists are unable to hold the government to account over the accuracy of the data. Orbán has singular control of the public knowledge of the number of confirmed coronavirus cases, which, according to a government website, is 817 to date. See more here about this on the Index map tracking attacks on media freedom in Hungary.