Be careful what you write or the police could come knocking.
That’s the message in Hungary, where dozens of people have been investigated after falling foul of a government law brought in after the coronavirus crisis struck.
Under new measures approved in late March, Hungary’s government can rule by decree without a time limit. People who publicize what are viewed as untrue or distorted facts — and which could interfere with the protection of the public, or could alarm or agitate a large number of people — now face several years in jail.
Hungary’s police said Wednesday they had opened 87 investigations over “scaremongering” since the emergency law took effect. And while some investigations appear to have targeted online posts promoting false facts, others have focused on citizens criticizing the Viktor Orbán government.
On Wednesday morning, János Csóka-Szűcs, a disabled opposition activist in the eastern town of Gyula, woke up to police at his door. Officers confiscated his phone and computer, and took him to the local police station. His alleged crime under the March law? A Facebook post.
“I like living here,” Csóka-Szűcs told POLITICO in a phone interview on Thursday. “But I would like to live in such a way that I can express my opinion … It is possible to comment, not to agree, but no one should be sent police officers because he has an opinion about something,” he said.
According to Csóka-Szűcs, in Gyula — a town of about 29,000 — residents have for some time been scared to express their views online. If someone “posts or ‘likes’ something that does not please the local leadership, first of all they call on the phone that this shouldn’t have been done,” he said. Sometimes those who alienate the authorities with a social media post “lose their jobs,” he said.
The police action in Gyula came a day after law enforcement showed up at the home of András Kusinszki in northern Hungary, after he wrote a Facebook post critical of the government’s decision to ease the coronavirus lockdown.
The investigation against Kusinszki was since dropped — but not before officers uploaded a video of him being escorted out of his home and into a police car, which got over 75,000 views on the national police’s YouTube channel.
The police are “calling the attention of social media users” to the fact that they are “continuously monitoring the internet,” the Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county’s police force said in a statement.
Asked in a virtual press conference Thursday about the two recent cases, Orbán’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyás said the fact that some individuals were released after a few hours “shows the strength of the rule of law.”
Government critics say the police action is creating a “chilling effect” in a country where many people — especially those outside the capital — are already scared to speak their minds in public.
However, officials in Budapest maintain that the current laws do not undermine freedom of speech.
“The extraordinary measures of the Hungarian Government do not restrict the activities of the media and do not affect the freedom of expression,” Justice Minister Judit Varga wrote in a speech posted on Facebook and sent to members of the European Parliament on Thursday after the Parliament declined her request to address the plenary. “No one can seriously argue that freedom of expression includes the deliberate spread of lies, especially when it jeopardizes effective defence against the pandemic,” the minister said.
Civil rights activists say Csóka-Szűcs and Kusinszki were simply exercising their right to express themselves — and that their online comments fall under the category of fact and opinion.
“The police was acting in line with the rules of criminal procedure,” said Stefánia Kapronczay, executive director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, adding that the measures used in the two cases — including detention and confiscation of communications devices — “were obviously excessive.”
“The application of the scaremongering regulations to the cases was also apparently incorrect and can be considered a serious misinterpretation of the law,” she said, pointing out that “while the actions of the police will most definitely have a chilling effect on many ordinary users,” opposition politicians and activists have begun sharing some of the Facebook posts investigated by police as a form of protest.
The European Commission has not opened an infringement proceeding over Hungary’s emergency law, repeatedly noting that it is nevertheless monitoring how the rules are being implemented.
There are a “set of concerns” regarding recent measures in Hungary, Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders told POLITICO in a phone interview on Thursday, pointing to areas from data protection to changes in the labor code.
When it comes to the law on false and distorted information, the commissioner said his team is looking beyond just the procedures attached to the new rules.
The Commission is “collecting information on the situation on the ground, it’s not just to see if there are some investigations … it’s to see also what are the effects of those investigations and of the communication about the new law,” Reynders said.
“Of course the chilling effect is a very important element,” the commissioner said, adding that pressure can be “a real danger for the freedom of expression and the freedom of press.”
Members of the European Parliament held a debate on Thursday on the Hungarian government’s emergency measures.
“Democracy has been killed in Hungary,” Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld said. “It’s dead.”
The Hungarian government has rejected claims it is trying to hold on to special powers, with Gulyás telling reporters on Thursday that the government could give up its emergency powers toward the end of June, depending on how the pandemic evolves.
Maïa de La Baume contributed reporting.
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