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LGBTQI rights. Gender equality. Media freedom. The fate of liberties in Hungary hang in the balance as the nation heads to the polls on Sunday. With a falling currency, a mismanaged response to the pandemic still fresh to mind and a stronger opposition under United For Hungary – a coalition of six parties spanning the political spectrum – the election campaign has been the closest in years. But the war in Ukraine, right on Hungary’s border, has changed its course in unexpected ways. Below we’ve picked the most important things to consider when it comes to the April 2022 elections.
Basic rights could worsen
Since his election in 2010, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has whittled away fundamental rights in the country to the extent that Hungarian activist Dora Papp told Index in 2019 free expression had no more space “to worsen”.
Orban’s main targets have been people who identify as LGBTQI. Last year, amid global outcry, he passed a law that bans the dissemination of content in schools deemed to promote homosexuality and gender change. Seeking approval for this legislation, Hungary is holding a referendum on sexual orientation workshops in schools this Sunday alongside the parliamentary elections.
Orban also takes aim at the nation’s Roma and immigrants, and has revived old anti-Semitic tropes in his attacks on George Soros, a Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist who Orban claims is plotting to flood the country with migrants (an accusation Soros firmly denies).
As for half of the population, Orban’s macho-style leadership manifests in rhetoric on women that is dismissive, insulting and focuses on traditional roles. Asked in 2015 why there were no women in his cabinet, he replied that few women could deal with the stress of politics. That’s just one example. The list goes on.
His populist politics have seeped into every democratic institution and effectively dismantled them. The constitution, the judiciary and municipal councils have all been reorganised to serve the interests of Orban. Education, both higher and lower, has seen huge levels of interference. Progressive teachers and classes have been removed. Even the Billy Elliot musical was cancelled after Orban called the show a propaganda tool for homosexuality.
But the media can’t freely report much of this
In response to claims of media-freedom erosion, the Hungarian government likes to point out that there are no journalists in jail in Hungary, nor have any been murdered on Orban’s watch. But as we know only too well there are many ways to cook an egg. Through gaining control of public media, concentrating private media in the hands of Orban allies and creating a hostile environment for the remaining independent media (think misinformation laws and constant insults), the attacks come from every other angle. Orban has even been accused of using Pegasus, the invasive spyware behind the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi, to target investigative journalists.
It’s little wonder then that in 2021 Reporters Without Borders labelled Orban a “press freedom predator”, the only one to make the list from the EU.
As election day approaches the attacks continue. In February, for example, pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet said it had obtained recordings showing that NGOs linked to Soros were “manipulating” international press coverage of Hungary, a claim instantly rejected by civil society groups.
Ukraine War has shifted the narrative, for better and worse
Given Orban’s track-record on rights, it comes as no surprise that he’s the closest EU ally of Vladimir Putin. This wasn’t a great look before 24 February and it’s even less so today, as the opposition are keen to highlight. They are pushing Orban hard on his neutral stance, which has seen him simultaneously open Hungary’s borders to Ukrainian refugees and oppose sanctions and the sending of weapons.
But Orban is playing his hand well. Fears of becoming embroiled in the war appear to be stronger in Hungary than anger at Putin’s aggression, many analysts says. Orban is claiming a vote for him is a vote for stability and neutrality, while a vote for the opposition is a vote for war. He’s even tried to cast his February visit to Moscow as a “peace mission”.
And though he has condemned the invasion, he has yet to say anything bad about Putin himself. Worse still, Hungarian media is blasting out Russian propaganda. Pundits, TV stations and print outlets are pushing out lines like the war was caused by NATO’s aggressive acts toward Russia, Russian troops have occupied Ukraine’s nuclear plants to protect them and the Ukrainian government is full of Nazis.
Yes. Orban met with a coalition of Europe’s far-right in Spain at the start of the year. They discussed the possibility of a Europe-wide alliance. What that looks like now in a post-Ukraine world is hard to tell. We’d rather not see.
Then there’s the fact that Serbia also goes to the polls Sunday. Like Orban, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), led by president Aleksandar Vučić, has been unnerved by growing opposition. Also like Orban, they’re close to Putin and using the Ukraine war to their advantage – reminding people of the 1999 Kosovo war when NATO launched a three-month air strike. Orban and Vučić have developed close ties and will no doubt be buoyed up by each other’s victories should that happen on Sunday.
So will the Hungary elections be free and fair?
If the 2018 elections are anything to go by, they will be “free but not fair”, the conclusion of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), who partially monitored the 2018 election process. That’s the optimistic take. Others are fearful they will be neither free nor fair, so much so that a grassroots civic initiative called 20K22 has recruited more than 20,000 ballot counters – two for each of Hungary’s voting precincts – to be stationed at polling centres on election day with the aim of stopping any voting irregularities.
News from yesterday isn’t confidence-boosting either. Hungarian election officials reported a suspected case of voter fraud to the police. Bags full of completed ballots were found at a rubbish dump in north-western Romania, home to a large Hungarian minority who have the right to vote in Hungary’s elections. Images and videos shared by the opposition featured partially burnt ballots marked to support them. As of writing, no details have been provided of the actual perpetrators and their motives, and Orban has been quick to accuse the opposition of being behind the incident. Either way, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
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[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”114690″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]“The Hungarian public’s access to sources of balanced news and information is in greater danger than ever before.” This was the stark warning that Index on Censorship, alongside 15 other organisations, delivered to Executive Vice-President of the European Commission Margrethe Vestager today.
After a decade of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s rule, Hungary’s media landscape is in turmoil. Last month, 70 of the approximately 90 journalists working at Index.hu – which had been considered one of the last major independent news outlets in Hungary – resigned after the editor-in-chief was fired by the company’s CEO.
“For years, we’ve been saying that there are two conditions for the independent operation of Index: that there be no external influence on the content we publish or the structure and composition of our staff. Firing Szabolcs Dull has violated our second condition. His dismissal is a clear interference in the composition of our staff, and we cannot regard it any other way but as an overt attempt to apply pressure on Index.hu,” the departing journalists wrote in an open letter.
“Index was the most widely read news website in Hungary,” explained András Pethő in an interview with Index on Censorship. Pethő is co-founder and senior editor at Direkt36, a small investigative journalism outlet that focuses on reporting abuses of power. “It was one of the few remaining independent news websites in Hungary. It was a kind of hub on the Hungarian internet: a lot of people started their day by checking Index.”
“The organisation, the outlet itself is still here. The whole staff resigned but they hired new people. There’s a new leadership and we’ll see what that looks like, how they will cover news, and how independent they will be,” said Pethő. “What happened is bad for basically everyone who is interested in independent journalism in Hungary.”
Before founding Direkt36, Pethő had been a reporter and editor at Origo.hu, one of the largest online news outlets alongside Index. But in 2014, Origo.hu’s editor-in-chief was abruptly replaced after an investigation was published about lavish expenses claimed by Orban’s chief of staff. “Basically we went through a pretty similar story [to Index],” said Pethő. “The whole project – Direckt36 – was born as a response to the negative environment.”
What happened at Index and Origo are just two examples of the Hungarian government’s efforts to undermine independent media in the country. Index on Censorship has reported regularly on Orban’s attacks on the media and has been particularly concerned by events of the last six months fearing that the Covid-19 crisis is being used as a distraction to further curtail media freedom. In this period, we have received reports of journalists being barred from press conferences, alongside other attacks that we have documented on our map.
But despite the government’s ongoing and strategic efforts to punish critical media and reward government mouthpieces, the EU has yet to meaningfully intervene. As highlighted by the signatories of today’s letter to Vestager, such efforts have included the misuse of state aid, which has resulted in two complaints being logged with the European Commission in 2016 and 2018 respectively. The first complaint relates to Hungary’s public service broadcaster which, despite having long ceased to meet international standards due to its clear pro-government bias, continues to receive state funding. The second relates to the distribution of state advertising to media outlets in Hungary.
Although it was a market leader, Index.hu had received virtually no state advertising in the years prior to the mass resignations. At the same time, its main competitor – the now pro-government Origo.hu, benefitted heavily. As stated in today’s letter, “the goal of these efforts is clear: to financially weaken independent media and hamper the production and dissemination of critical news.”
Pethő says that Direkt36 are among the organisations feeling the squeeze. “When we launched it in 2015 and when we had a bigger story, those stories were often picked up by several online news outlets, a couple of TV channels, radio stations… so it could travel quite widely in the Hungarian media,” he said.
“That space has been shrinking gradually more and more and now when we publish a bigger piece maybe it’s picked up by a couple of news websites, maybe there is a radio interview, maybe one TV channel. But it’s much less than what we had three, four or five years ago.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]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.
Hungary’s neighbour Austria, which has a smaller population and recorded its first cases just 8 days before Hungary, has to date recorded 12,206 cases.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”3″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1586344862424-03642fb1-d46b-2″ taxonomies=”4157″][/vc_column][/vc_row]