New draft legislation in Hungary threatening journalists and others accused of spreading “false information” with jail is a step toward total information control and the further suppression of press freedom in the country, the International Press Institute (IPI) warned today.

The Hungarian parliament is set to vote early this week on a raft of measures ostensibly aimed at fighting the COVID-19 pandemic but that in reality conveniently strengthen the government’s authoritarian grip. The new rules would allow Prime Minister Viktor Orban to extend the current state of emergency indefinitely – essentially amounting to rule by decree – and punish the spreading of “false information” deemed to harm the fight against the virus with up to five years in prison.

Over the past week, the Orban government, aided by pro-government media, has accused independent media outlets of spreading “fake news” for asking questions about the government’s preparedness and handling of the crisis, such as whether doctors and nurses have proper protective gear.

“This law would allow the Hungarian government to back up its usual ‘fake news’ accusations against journalists with the threat of criminal prosecution and even imprisonment”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “The government’s attacks on independent journalists simply for doing their job leave little doubt that this proposal is an effort to cement control over public information and can be used to intimidate what remains of the independent press into self-censorship.”

Hungary under Orban has spent the last ten years dismantling press freedom but until now has preferred surreptitious methods such as market distortion rather than laws that could result in the criminalization of journalism. IPI last week underscored that while restrictions on individual freedoms may be necessary in the pandemic, any such measures must be necessary, proportionate, temporary and limited to solving the immediate health crisis – criteria that the Hungarian proposals do not appear to meet.

Griffen added: “This move is all the more troubling considering that independent media are essential allies in protecting public health through the dissemination of accurate and timely information. But rather than working together with media to manage the crisis for the benefit of all citizens, the Orban government is exploiting the opportunity of emergency rule to tighten its grip on the country’s public institutions and the flow of news and information.”

IPI is sending an urgent appeal today EU Values Commissioner Vera Jourova asking her to use the power of her office to convince the Hungarian authorities to change tack.

“We urge Hungarian lawmakers to reject these measures until they reflect standards of constitutional governance in emergency situations”, Griffen said. “We also call on the EU to stand up for fundamental rights in Hungary and to not simply stand by as independent journalism in Hungary is under attack. The precedent set by inaction in Hungary today would be devastating.”