Vice President, European Commission
Commissioner for Values and Transparency
Dear Commissioner Jourova,
On behalf of the International Press Institute, the global network of leading editors, journalists and media executives for press freedom, I am writing to express our profound concerns about the dangers of certain European governments taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to punish independent and critical media.
Today, Monday, March 23, the Hungarian government will be demanding an indefinite extension of the state of emergency and the power to impose prison sentences of up to five years for promoting false information.
The emergency legislation requires 80% of the parliamentary vote to pass, which it is unlikely to achieve. However, the government can then return to parliament in a week’s time and only require a two-thirds majority to obtain these extraordinary powers.
Meanwhile the few remaining independent media outlets in Hungary, such as index.hu and 444.hu are attacked on a daily basis accused of spreading “fake news” for raising simple questions about the government’s preparedness, strategy and transparency amid the pandemic. In this context, it is clear that the proposed prison sentences will be a tool to threaten journalists and intimidate them into self-censorship.
Such a measure would be an extreme overreach of power by a government with an established record of undermining media freedoms and conducting its own forms of disinformation.
Were this law to pass it would set a fearful precedent for other European Union member states that might be tempted to follow Hungary’s example and do untold damage to fundamental rights and democracy as well as undermining efforts to end the pandemic.
In a period when our citizens’ fundamental rights are being suspended around Europe, the need for media scrutiny to ensure no abuse of these new powers is stronger than ever. IPI strongly believes that press freedom and independent journalism are not luxuries in these times – on the contrary, the free flow of news and information about the pandemic is essential to combating it and protecting public health.
We therefore call on you to use the power of your office to speak out against such a measure and to commit to ensuring, in your role as Commissioner for Values and Transparency, that fundamental human rights and press freedom will be guaranteed as the EU strives to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, not simply for their own sake, but for the sake of our common aim of effectively stopping the virus.
Last week IPI issued its first warning about the risks of governments using COVID-19 to roll back on press freedom and on Friday issued a first analysis of the emerging trends and risks posed to journalists. Other fears include the uncontrolled and unsupervised growth of surveillance and restrictions imposed on media’s ability to access government, health experts or actors on the front line of the health pandemic.
We kindly suggest a meeting as soon as possible, ideally together with other press freedom groups working to protect journalists’ rights at this critical time.
Director International Press Institute
This letter by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.