Hungary passes law that will let Orbán rule by decree

Shaun Walker in Budapest and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels
Photograph: Bernadett Szabó/Reuters

Hungary’s parliament has passed a new set of coronavirus measures that includes jail terms for spreading misinformation and gives no clear time limit to a state of emergency that allows the nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to rule by decree.

Parliament voted by 137 to 53 to pass the measures on Monday afternoon, with the two-thirds majority enjoyed by Orbán’s Fidesz party enough to push them through in spite of opposition from other parties, which had demanded a time limit or sunset clause on the legislation.

The bill introduces jail terms of up to five years for intentionally spreading misinformation that hinders the government response to the pandemic, leading to fears that it could be used to censor or self-censor criticism of the government response.

As of Monday morning, Hungary had 447 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 15 deaths, although the real figures are likely to be higher. The country is under a partial lockdown, with people discouraged from going outside except for essential activities, and schools, restaurants and many shops closed.

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Rights groups and government critics say that while it is clear coronavirus brings extraordinary challenges, checks and balances should be placed on the government response, especially given Orbán’s erosion of democratic norms during his 10 years in power.

“This bill would create an indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency and give Viktor Orbán and his government carte blanche to restrict human rights,” said Dávid Vig, Amnesty International’s Hungary director. “This is not the way to address the very real crisis that has been caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Hungary’s liberal opposition had said that although it had concerns over a number of elements of the law, it was willing to overlook them in the spirit of compromise as long as a sunset clause was introduced.

“Of course we support the emergency situation. We agree with the government that there’s an emergency and that they have to do everything to combat it. We offered almost everything, but we asked for the time limit,” said Ágnes Vadai, an MP with the opposition Democratic Coalition party.

However, the ruling party had made it clear that it was not willing to back down over the sunset clause, she claimed. “I think from the very beginning, they didn’t want an agreement, because they have used the whole thing for political communication,” said Vadai.

Immediately after the vote, the senior Fidesz minister Katalin Novák wrote on Twitter: “The parliament authorized the government to continue fighting effectively against #Covid_19 … Regrettably, the opposition parties do not support this fight.”

Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, a French Green MEP who leads the European parliament’s work on Hungary and the rule of law, said the EU had left it late to respond to decade-old concerns about democratic backsliding and the weakening of the rule of law under the Orbán government. “Sadly for Hungary, we have been so far [behind] that I am a bit lost [as to] what we can do now,” she said.

Critics of the bill have said it is unclear the government can be trusted to rescind the measures when the pandemic is over, pointing out that a state of emergency related to the migration crisis, brought in in 2016, is still in force.

Asked who would decide when it could be declared over, the justice minister, Judit Varga, said on Friday: “Life will give the answer to this. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist, but I think it will be crystal clear for everyone in Europe when the crisis is over.”

Orbán’s spokesman Zoltán Kovács wrote in a blogpost on Monday: “Just as in wartime, a state of emergency could extend until the end of hostilities. Today, we confront not a military power but are in a war-like state to defend our people against a pandemic the likes of which we have not seen in a century.”

He sharply attacked critics of the law, singling out a Guardian editorial for taking “liberal media cynicism to new, despicable lows”.

Some of the gravest concern is over the new criminal provision against spreading false information. Varga said it was “both adequate and necessary in order to fight malicious disinformation campaigns”.

This is unlikely to quell fears that the bill could be used to target critical reporting of the government’s response to the pandemic, given that Hungarian government figures frequently claim that independent Hungarian journalists and foreign media are engaged in a deliberate plot to smear the Orbán government. Varga said the law would apply to everyone, including journalists.