While many states take all possible measures to use the state of emergency in favour of their people, the prime-minister of Hungary decided to turn the situation to is benefit. Such a step looks like an attack on democratic Europe, rather than an attempt to prevent and evade coronavirus spreading.
The Bill discussed in parliament on Monday would provide prime minister Viktor Orban an opportunity to rule by decree under a state of emergency that it could extend indefinitely without the need to get any parliament approval, if it is impossible to gather a quorum due to Covid-19 outbreak. In fact it means the unrestricted extraordinary powers, since no less than two-thirds majority in the parliament is required in order to lift the state of emergence, while the majority is held by ruling Orban’s party Fidesz. Needles to say, during the state of emergency no elections, including by-elections, local elections, or referendums can be held.
The draft legislation also creates new offences, for example anyone who publishes “false” or “distorted” facts could face up to five years in prison. Don’t you see the parallels with the law adopted earlier in Russia, which introduced fines for publication of false and faithless information? Well, the only difference is that Putin didn’t required any emergency situations for this.
Right-wing forces and human rights organisations have often expressed their concerns with the Orban’s terrible track record on media freedom. It causes genuine fears that the true aim of new law is to crush Hungary’s last critical voices. In addition, anyone who breaks quarantine orders faces a prison sentence, which in certain circumstances could be a long as 8 years. Both crimes will be permanent additions to the criminal code and won’t disappear from the books when the emergency ends.
Dunja Mijatovic, human rights commissioner for the 47-state Council of Europe, warned that the Bill “would grant sweeping powers to the government to rule by decree without a clear cut-off date and safeguards. Even in an emergency, it is necessary to observe the constitution, ensure parliamentary and judicial scrutiny and [the] right to information.”
Scott Griffen, deputy director of the Vienna-based International Press Institute, said that “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.”
The EU has clashed repeatedly with Mr Orban over his “illiberal” reforms in Hungary, where 167 Covid-19 cases and seven deaths from the virus have been confirmed.
Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs described much criticism of the Bill as “biased and irresponsible”.
“We”re in a state of emergency,” he said. ”Lives are at stake.”
While many countries are taking extraordinary measures to deal with the virus, the Hungarian draft bill, failing to justify each of its measures as strictly necessary to address a public health emergency and only that, offers the spectre of a power grab. Parliament should block this law to safeguard democracy, or else Hungary is likely to bear the consequences for many years to come, even when the pandemic recedes.