Earlier this month, the International Press Institute (IPI) released a comprehensive study highlighting ways in which Hungary’s civil defamation laws present obstacles to the coverage of political affairs. While those findings add yet another dimension to Hungary’s press freedom challenges, focus in recent times has rightly been on the abuse of Hungary’s criminal defamation laws, which foresee up to two years in prison in some cases.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) has been leading the fight against criminal defamation in Hungary, most prominently through its “PolitiKuss” campaign (the name approximately translates to “shut up by politicians”). The campaign, which has a strong element of citizen engagement, has aimed to secure the repeal of Hungary’s criminal defamation laws and pressure politicians not to file charges when criticised.

IPI recently spoke with Dalma Dojcsák, who heads HCLU’s programme on freedom of expression, about her organisation’s efforts to bring Hungary’s defamation laws in line with international standards – and about increased official pressure on the work of Hungarian civil society organisations.

IPI: Why are criminal defamation laws such a central focus of your work in Hungary?

Dojcsák: The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union has repeatedly called for the decriminalisation of defamation and libel, as in other European countries. Our experience shows that criminal procedures put an even higher burden on the journalists and citizens who take part in public debates as compared to civil procedures. We strongly believe that criminal law must be a last resort for the state when all the other options for protecting rights fail. Since civil defamation is a possibility in every case, criminal procedures have no reasonable basis in a democratic society.

IPI: Who are the typical plaintiffs in criminal defamation cases and why do these persons choose to file a criminal case instead of pursuing a civil case only?

Dojcsák: Politicians and holders of public offices often use criminal defamation to silence critical voices. The procedure is convenient for them, since the public prosecutor will represent their case before the court (while ordinary citizens have to hire a lawyer when initiating a criminal defamation case).

IPI: Do Hungarian courts in criminal defamation cases sufficiently take into account freedom of media and expression and/or the European Court of Human Rights?

Dojcsák: In the cases represented by the HCLU the case-law of the ECtHR is always cited, therefore the courts are obliged to include them in their reasoning. Lately, we have experienced a better understanding of European and constitutional standards, especially when the case reached the higher criminal courts.

IPI: What needs to be changed in order to ensure that criminal defamation laws cannot be abused to limit media freedom and freedom of expression?

Dojcsák: Criminal defamation must be erased from the Criminal Code. Until this point, courts have been obliged under the law to rule against defendants if latter are not able to prove any of their statements in a criminal procedure. This decriminalisation has to be done by Parliament, which has shown reluctance in the matter.

IPI: To what extent is the HCLU under pressure from the Hungarian government and are you concerned that this pressure will increase in the future?

Dojcsák: Contradictory statements are issued by the members of the government every week about a new law being drafted on the rights and duties of civil society. According to these news, the new law will be similar to its Russian and Egyptian counterparts, with administrative duties for NGOs that receive funding from abroad. The government keeps demonising watchdog NGOs to shake off the last limits on its power. After the migration crisis, we expect to become the next scapegoat in the never ending war fought by our prime minister.