The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, today expressed serious concern over the passing of new legislation handing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sweeping new powers to rule by decree and tighten his control over the country’s media amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 30, Orbán’s Fidesz party, which already had a firm grip on many of the country’s institutions, voted by a two-thirds majority to extend a national state of emergency over the pandemic, giving the government powers to bypass parliament and rule without checks and balances for an indefinite period.
The new law also criminalizes the spreading of misinformation deemed to undermine the authorities’ fight against the COVID-19 virus with fines and up to five years in prison. Orbán and Fidesz have frequently used accusations of “fake news” to attack critical journalists and have built up a vast pro-government media empire to blanket the country with official messaging.
“This is a dark day for press freedom in Hungary”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “Viktor Orbán now has yet another tool in his arsenal for silencing what remains of the country’s independent press.”
He added: “This is not about fighting disinformation. The Hungarian government is taking advantage of a health emergency to accelerate its already extensive control over news and information in the country. Regardless of whether the law is applied in practice, the potential for self-censorship is enormous and damaging at a time when independent journalism is more essential than ever.”
Last week IPI warned the new legislation represented a step toward total information control and the further suppression of press freedom in the country.
Along with seven other media freedom partners, IPI also wrote last week to European leaders calling on them to publicly condemn the move and ensure that media freedom would be guaranteed in Hungary and other European states.
The secretary general of the Council of Europe, the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, and the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights, among others, expressed public concern about the legislation.
An IPI-led report published late last year described how the Fidesz party has systematically dismantled media independence, freedom and pluralism and divided the journalistic community in the country over the past 10 years, giving it a degree of media control unprecedented in an EU member state.