Prime Minister Victor Orbán was elected in 2010 and changed the constitution to take control of independent government institutions and initiated government policies to limit operations of opposition groups, journalists, and universities. According to non-profit Freedom House, the judiciary is unstable and controlled by the Prime Minister’s office, making it unusable in the struggle for free speech in Hungary. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) credit these policies for inspiring other European countries including Poland and Slovenia to institute similar restrictions on journalists.
Hungary’s coronavirus legislation gave the government almost unlimited power to handle the pandemic, a crisis which solidified Hungary as an information police-state where the prime minister can rule by decree without parliamentary oversight. Anti-scaremongering policies, meant to stop anyone “blocking the government’s anti-pandemic effort,” were used by Orbán to intimidate government critics and also temporarily suspended data protection policies. This fits with other incidents of government officials using their authority to suppress stories for their convenience.
Journalists who are caught conducting routine drone investigations in properties without express permission could get up to three years in prison under section 422 of the Hungarian criminal code, which focusses specifically on “illicit” data collection. Two journalists, Gabriella Horn and Balázs Gulyás, were threatened with this when investigating why military vehicles were present on land owned by businessman and friend of Orbán, Lőrinc Mészáros. It is a policy that shows the extent the government will go to, to side with government officials and oligarchs over journalists.
In May, journalist Júlia Halász appealed criminal charges of defamation and illegal recording for her publications after reporting on the harassment she endured while covering Hungarian diplomat, László Szabó.
Many journalists from the media company Magyar Hang reported government officials and their supporters harassing them for opposing Orbán’s reelection in 2018, and since the pandemic legislation, the head of the company, Csaba Lukács told the Committee to Protect Journalists, “reporting has become increasingly dangerous. This new legislation is a clear threat.”
In addition to government oppression, media publications face economic barriers in Hungary. Hungary’s government media council’s decisions have been criticised for being politicised because they prevented the consolidation of independent media companies while encouraging pro-government media outlets. Hungary’s largest independent newspaper closed in 2016, and the government oversaw the merger of hundreds of small media outlets in a major blow to Hungary’s media diversity.
France may have placed at the top of the group on Wednesday, but their free speech record is mediocre. Generally, France has an independent judiciary, fair and free elections, and free and independent media that protect free speech rights in France.
In recent years, political turmoil has given France a bad record of violence against journalists. RSF described it as an overall “hostile environment for reporters.” Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim demonstrations in France have been increasingly violent, and while covering them, journalists are often arbitrarily detained with their equipment seized or subjected to teargas grenades, flashbangs, and baton beating. At least two journalists in 2020 were called before French police and claimed to have experienced harassment under questioning. Policies implemented in 2010 make it possible for the government to claim “overriding public interest” to force journalists to break source confidentiality.
Journalists are targets of police violence during the recent large-scale protests over France’s “Global Security Law”, which makes it illegal to “maliciously share” images that may lead to the identification of a police officer. The police response to the Gilets Jaunes – or “Yellow Vests” – movement has been widely criticised for putting bystanders and journalists in harm’s way.
Journalists were the target of the worst terrorist attacks in France. Nine Journalists were killed in 2015 during the Charlie Hebdo shooting which was an attack on the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. The gunmen identified themselves as members of the Islamist group, Al-Qaeda, and five years later, a second stabbing attack outside Charlie Hebdo is also suspect to have an Islamist terrorist motive.
In April of 2021, French Journalist Nadiya Lazzouni received a death threat with sexist and anti-Muslim slurs and proof that the sender had been watching her. She filed a complaint with the Paris prosecutor’s office but has not heard anything in response as of 15 April. For some journalists in France, both extremists and the police can be a threat to their safety.
An active effort with constitutional safeguards to avoid repeating the country’s past has made Germany a stable democracy with well-protected civil liberties and political rights. Recent challenges with immigration have given a new rise to right-wing extremism and has created a more volatile environment for journalists. RSF’s 2021 report on Germany states “an independent judiciary ensures a favourable environment for journalists in Germany.” In recent years, the judiciary has been vital in preventing government policies that are harmful to journalists.
Despite the balanced government structure, Germany can still be a dangerous place for journalists. Extremists, mostly from the far right with some leftists, often use journalists as targets for violent attacks, and, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, some politicians encouraged distrust in media outlets to promote populist agendas. In July of 2021, demonstrators protesting the Covid-19 lockdown physically blocked reporter’s cameras with their fists and shoved journalists while threatening them not to report on their protests. In May of 2021, Pro-Palestine demonstrators threw rocks and firecrackers at news crews in Berlin, and police used excessive force to prevent journalists from covering controversial evictions in October of 2020.
The Network Enforcement Act, a controversial law enacted in 2018, was brought in to regulate online hate speech and led to media companies deleting posts that would not have been considered hate speech. A majority of Germans, according to Freedom House, stated they are careful what they post online for fear of repercussions as a result.
Several government policies in response to extremism have been criticised for having unfair restrictions on journalism. In May of June 2021, their federal court ruled a law that was used to force journalists to reveal their sources was unconstitutional. Most recently in June 2021, a new law increased government surveillance and hacking power while removing judicial oversight and protections for Journalists during terrorism investigations, sparking concerns around protecting journalist sources from government retaliation.
Portugal has a long history of restricting press freedom, but following the Portuguese Constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression in 1978, it has grown to be ranked ninth-best in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index of 2021. Despite a vocal minority that criticises the extent to which freedom of expression is allowed, Portugal now has a decent free speech record, but journalists are hindered by the economic downturn’s effect on their media industry. With a near-perfect score from Freedom House, Portugal earned a 96/100 for its effective political system and balanced judiciary Portuguese media outlets struggled with funding during the pandemic, and in response, Prime Minister António Costa advanced what the state planned to pay in government advertising to support the industry. Generally, public broadcasters have and struggle against commercial television outlets, which gives diverse viewpoints but some risk of populism.
Wrongful surveillance of journalists by police has been an issue. In January 2021, police were allegedly surveilling journalists illegally, without a court order, attempting to uncover their sources, and the Lisbon prosecutor’s office was exposed using electronic surveillance on two journalists in an attempt to reveal their sources in 2018. If charged for “breaching judicial secrets”, the two journalists could face up to two years in prison.
Another challenge Portugal has been facing is recent corruption scandals. In September of 2020, 17 people, including three judges, were charged with corruption. Portuguese authorities, complying with the international effort identified those involved and froze their assets, but some concerns remain around the poor resources provided to investigators and the ineffective anti-corruption and whistleblower protection legislation passed in 2019.
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”85524″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]For around six decades after WWII ideas, laws and institutions supporting free expression spread across borders globally. Ever more people were liberated from stifling censorship and repression. But in the past decade that development has reversed.
In 2016 the EU-Commission and a number of big tech-firms including Facebook, Twitter and Google, agreed on a Code of Conduct under which these firms commit to removing illegal hate speech within 24 hours. In other words what happens in Brussels doesn’t stay in Brussels. It may spread to Berlin and end up in Moscow, transformed from a voluntary instrument aimed at defending Western democracies to a draconian law used to shore up a regime committed to disrupting Western democracies.
US President Donald Trump’s crusade against “fake news” may also have had serious consequences for press freedom. Because of the First Amendment’s robust protection of free expression Trump is largely powerless to weaponise his war against the “fake news media” and “enemies of the people” that most others refer to as “independent media”.
Yet many other citizens of the world cannot rely on the same degree of legal protection from thin-skinned political leaders eager to filter news and information. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented the highest ever number of journalists imprisoned for false news worldwide. And while 21 such cases may not sound catastrophic the message these arrests and convictions send is alarming. And soon more may follow. In April Malaysia criminalised the spread of “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false”, with up to six years in prison. Already a Danish citizen has been convicted to one month’s imprisonment for a harmless YouTube video, and presidential candidate Mahathir Mohammed is also being investigated. Kenya is going down the same path with a draconian bill criminalising “false” or “fictitious” information. And while Robert Mueller is investigating whether Trump has been unduly influenced by Russian President Putin, it seems that Putin may well have been influenced by Trump. The above mentioned Russian draft social media law also includes an obligation to delete any “unverified publicly significant information presented as reliable information.” Taken into account the amount of pro-Kremlin propaganda espoused by Russian media such as RT and Sputnik, one can be certain that the definition of “unverified” will align closely with the interests of Putin and his cronies.
But even democracies have fallen for the temptation to define truth. France’s celebrated president Macron has promised to present a bill targeting false information by “to allow rapid blocking of the dissemination of fake news”. While the French initiative may be targeted at election periods it still does not accord well with a joint declaration issued by independent experts from international and regional organisations covering the UN, Europe, the Americans and Africa which stressed that “ general prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous ideas, including ‘false news’ or ‘non-objective information’, are incompatible with international standards for restrictions on freedom of expression”.
However, illiberal measures also travel from East to West. In 2012 Russia adopted a law requiring NGOs receiving funds from abroad and involved in “political activities” – a nebulous and all-encompassing term – to register as “foreign agents”. The law is a thinly veiled attempt to delegitimise civil society organisations that may shed critical light on the policies of Putin’s regime. It has affected everything from human rights groups, LGBT-activists and environmental organisations, who must choose between being branded as something akin to enemies of the state or abandon their work in Russia. As such it has strong appeal to other politicians who don’t appreciate a vibrant civil society with its inherent ecosystem of dissent and potential for social and political mobilisation.
One such politician is Victor Orban, prime minister of Hungary’s increasingly illiberal government. In 2017 Orban’s government did its own copy paste job adopting a law requiring NGOs receiving funds from abroad to register as “foreign supported”. A move which should be seen in the light of Orban’s obsession with eliminating the influence of anything or anyone remotely associated with the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros whose Open Society Foundation funds organisations promoting liberal and progressive values.
The cross-fertilisation of censorship between regime types and continents is part of the explanation why press freedom has been in retreat for more than a decade. In its recent 2018 World Press Freedom Index Reporters Without Borders identified “growing animosity towards journalists. Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies”. This is something borne out by the litany of of media freedom violations reported to Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom, which monitors 43 countries. In just the last four years, MMF has logged over 4,200 incidents — a staggering array of curbs on the press that range from physical assault to online threats and murders that have engulfed journalists.
Alarmingly Europe – the heartland of global democracy – has seen the worst regional setbacks in RSF’s index. This development shows that sacrificing free speech to guard against creeping authoritarianism is more likely to embolden than to defeat the enemies of the open society.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”100463″ img_size=”full” onclick=”custom_link” img_link_target=”_blank” link=”http://www.freespeechhistory.com”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]
Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1526895517975-5ae07ad7-7137-1″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Join Agnes Heller, Elif Shafak and Adam Zagajewski for a discussion about Europe’s changing environment for freedom. (Photos: Agnes Heller, Elif Shafak: Wikipedia; Adam Zagajewski: Frankie Fouganthin via Wikipedia
“The point of the future is that anything can happen.” – Victor Orban, prime minister of Hungary
Europe was a bastion of hope for more than a million refugees last year. What brought them? A hunger for safety and security? Dreams of freedom? The draw of liberal democracy with its ideals of free expression, equal opportunity and persecution for none?
But look within our own continent and you will see the cracks. In Hungary, Victor Orban’s administration looks increasingly autocratic. Poland’s new conservative government is making changes to its public media that critics have said amount to a takeover. How can we support neighbours like Turkey in their fight to avoid authoritarianism if we can’t fly the banner for freedom at home?
On the eve of the EU referendum, three major cultural figures from Hungary, Poland and Turkey gather in London to compare their stories and ask: is Europe just a place, or a set of values that are rapidly unravelling?
Agnes Heller was born in 1929 and is one of the leading thinkers to come out of the tradition of critical theory. Her broad intellectual range and publications include ethics, philosophical anthropology, political philosophy and a theory of modernity and its culture. Hungarian by birth, she was one of the best-known dissident Marxists in central Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. She has held visiting lectureships all over the world and has been the Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy at the New School in New York. She now lives in Budapest and is one of the most popular and outspoken critics of the current regime.
Elif Shafak was born in Strasbourg, France, in 1971. She is an award-winning novelist and the most widely read woman writer in Turkey. Critics have named her as “one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Turkish and world literature”. Her books have been published in more than 40 countries and she was awarded the honorary distinction of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. Elif has published thirteen books, nine of which are novels. She writes fiction in both Turkish and English. Elif blends Western and Eastern traditions of storytelling, bringing out the myriad stories of women, minorities, immigrants, subcultures, youth and global souls. Her work draws on diverse cultures and literary traditions, as well as a deep interest in history, philosophy, Sufism, oral culture, and cultural politics. Elif’s writing breaks down categories, clichés, and cultural ghettoes. She also has a keen eye for black humour.
Adam Zagajewski is an award-winning poet, novelist, translator and essayist. Born in Lwow in 1945, he first became well-known as one of the leading poets of the Generation of ‘68’ or the Polish New Wave (Nowa Fala). His poems and essays have been translated into many languages. Among his honors and awards are a fellowship from the Berliner Kunstlerprogramm, the Kurt Tucholsky Prize, a Prix de la Liberté, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Since 1988, he has served as visiting associate professor of English in the Creative Writing Programme at the University of Houston. In 2010, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Adam is currently co-editor of Zeszyty Literackie (Literary Review). He lives in Krakow.