FIDH releases 80-page report detailing democratic backsliding in Hungary

November 4, 2016

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The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), a Paris-based non-governmental federation for human rights organizations, released an 80-page report Friday detailing their findings following a year-long investigation into the state of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Hungary. The report shows how the government has meticulously reshaped the State’s institutional and legal framework to its advantage by systematically eroding democratic checks and balances and undermining the rule of law in the country, according to FIDH director of media relations Arthur Manet.

“Adverse impact on human rights”

The report details how the adoption of a new constitution (the Fundamental Law) and the creation of over 600 laws by ruling party Fidesz has “had an overall adverse impact on human rights across the board and led to severe limitations thereof.” These legislative tactics, the reports states, have led to limitations on fundamental human rights such as “the right to freedom of expression and information, the right to freedom of religion or belief, the right to private and family life and the rights of minorities.”

Independence of judiciary undermined

Transformation of the Hungarian judicial system is also examined in the report, which finds that the independence of the judiciary has been “undermined through laws that have broadened the powers and the scope of control” of a non-independent organ, the National Judicial Office (NJO), responsible for its administration. The NJO, which replaced the National Judicial Council (NJC) in 2011, is led by a president elected by Parliament to a nine-year term. The president holds all powers formerly held by the Council, something the report states “show a real ‘personalization of the function’ without providing a guarantee of ‘sufficient democratic accountability’.”

The simultaneous forced retirement of some 270 judges, roughly 10 percent of all judges in Hungary, after judicial reforms was also considered “worrisome” by European authorities and independent observers, the report states, and led to worries that Hungarian courts were being stocked with judges friendly to the aims of the ruling party.

Gerrymandering

Changes to Hungarian electoral law have led to the assertion that the Hungarian elections are “free but not fair,” the report states. A newly drawn constituency map and new electoral laws clearly favored the ruling party Fidesz. While reforms and the redefining of the map of constituencies were long overdue, the territorial delineations were determined by research and consulting institute Political Capital to be a typical example of “gerrymandering.” Thus, in the 2010 elections, the Fidesz-KDNP national list won 53 percent of votes and 68 percent of the seats in Parliament, whereas in 2014 they garnered 45 percent of votes and won 67 percent of seats.

“A complete overhaul of the Hungarian media landscape”

“Attempts by the government to gain control over or otherwise restrict independent and critical voices in recent years have extended to media,” the report states. Laws passed in 2010 resulted in the “complete overhaul of the Hungarian media landscape” which have led to a curtailment of pluralism and independence for both public and private media and threatened freedom of expression and information. Laws requiring “balanced coverage” regulate media content a priori and through broad and vague formulations, and are so vague that media outlets cannot know whether their coverage meets the standards outlined in the law. This kind of content regulation, “coupled with large discretion granted to media regulatory authorities in Hungary in determining whether the requirements are met – is liable to have a chilling effect on media.“

Defamation laws limit freedom of speech

Defamation laws also restrict freedom of speech in Hungary, the report states, which “risks seriously undermining free, investigative journalism and silencing critical voices.” Defamation lawsuits have increased in frequency after the expansion of defamation laws, creating an environment where any journalist, politician or independent critical voice can be sued for expressing critical opinions.

An increasingly restrictive media environment

Government control over the media has also taken place via advertising revenues, the report suggests. Those outlets which favor the government receive a disproportionate amount of state advertising revenues while critical outlets face obstacles to access for funding.

“A sharp decline in public and private advertising revenue for independent media outlets has been observed since 2010. Not only did the government significantly withdraw its advertising from media critical of the ruling coalition, but private companies also cut off advertising to those media for fear of losing government support,” the report states.

The report details other restrictions of Hungarian media since 2010, including registration requirements for all media, laws requiring journalists to reveal their sources, lack of independence in media regulatory bodies, and a proposed internet tax in 2015, which would have been the first of its kind in the world had it not been withdrawn after massive protest.

Limitations on access to pubic information

Access to public information has also been limited by changes to Hungarian law. New legislation in 2013 restricted full access to data of specific governmental institutions, thus giving those institutions wide discretion in deciding over access to information requests. Other provisions have made access to public information more difficult: requests to access information are no longer anonymous, and the same request for information cannot be submitted more than once a year, even when the applicant has not received a response from the administration following the request. Additionally, an amendment has introduced an obligation for applicants to bear the cost related to disclosing the requested information, which clearly violates the principle of free access to official documents.

“Furthermore, there is no way for the applicant to know in advance how much he/she will be charged for a request,” the report states. “This uncertainty deters applicants from filing such request and is contrary to the principle that any exception to the right to access information should be clearly provided for by the law. Transparency International referred to the law as ‘an unfair tax on transparency’.”

NGOs targeted

Smear campaigns and criminal investigations against civil society groups and NGOs, in addition to various legislative changes, have created a “shrinking space for civil society” according to the report. Regulatory changes in the Civil Code have required that NGOs revise their statutes in order to comply with the new rules concerning their “public benefit status,” which entitles them to support from the state through the National Cooperation Fund. The complex nature of the changes and the narrow deadline for compliance resulted in many NGOs who previously held the status failing to re-register.

Public funds are allocated mainly in support of church-based organizations for social inclusion activities or other government-friendly NGOs, the report states, whereas organizations promoting human rights and democracy, transparency and accountability, and grounded on values opposite to those promoted by the government are increasingly excluded from public support and, as a consequence, face increasing challenges in carrying out their work.

The report also details the history of a number of Hungarian NGOs coming under government attack beginning in 2013, when government-friendly media accused 11 NGOs funded by the Open Society Foundation of serving political interests, calling them a “civil left wing.” Other organizations funded by the European Economic Area/Norway Grants fund, a fund aimed at strengthening civil society development in Central and Eastern Europe, also came under attack, and the government requested a full audit of the NGOs to determine how fund monies were being spent. 58 NGOs were investigated, in violation of agreements with the Norwegian government, and threatened with suspension of their tax ID numbers if they did not turn over requested documents. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán claimed in a speech around this time that NGOs are “paid political activists who are trying to help foreign interests.” (It later turned out that Orbán had personally ordered the investigations, audit and harassment of the NGOs.) After lengthy investigations, house raids and audits, no charges were filed against any of the organizations.

Limits on freedom of religion

The government has also brought religious organizations under its sphere of influence. A controversial 2011 law caused more than 300 religious organizations previously recognized as “churches” to lose their status and be forced to undergo a re-registration procedure in order to regain it and obtain related state subsidies. Under the new rules, the registration decision lies with the Parliament, based on vague criteria allowing for wide parliamentary discretion in deciding which religious organizations should be recognized as “churches”.

Only 14 churches were recognized as such and could maintain their rights. The other religious groups faced the alternative of either filing a request for re-registration, initiating a procedure by which they would be turned into civil associations, or cease their activity. Many refused for a number of reasons, and lost all state support. Others submitted requests for re-registration to Parliament but were refused even though all conditions had been met. The report details other examples of religious groups’ sense of persecution under the law.

Human rights violations

Finally, Hungary’s “violations of the rights of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees” is addressed in the report. Hungary’s response to the refugee crisis since the Summer of 2015 “shows they are guilty of serious and systematic violations of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, international human rights law, as well as European law,” especially that which prohibits any state from pushing back “a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Hungary’s refusal to accept refugees for resettlement, in addition to its construction of a fence along its southern border with Serbia, also constitute violations of the Geneva Convention which prohibit host states from “criminalizing refugees who have fled a territory where their lives or freedom were threatened for irregularly entering and/or staying in the country.” The report points out that the rate of rejection of asylum applications in October 2015 exceeded 99 percent, a clear violation of the position of the UN High Commission for Refugees, and a violation of Hungarian law.

The report is also critical of treatment of refugees and asylum seekers at the southern border by Hungarian police, military and counter-terrorism unit TEK. Government legislation permitting the use of non-lethal weapons such as rubber bullets and tear gas was followed by serious incidents near the southern border crossing of Röszke, resulting in what the report calls “egregious human rights violations.”

In the aftermath of the highest volumes of arrivals at the southern border, the government initiated a referendum against proposed migrant resettlement quotas agreed to in the European Union. The referendum “elicited the indignation of the European Parliament, which, in a resolution of June 2015, qualified its wording as ‘highly misleading, biased, and unbalanced’. The failure of the referendum to attain sufficient voter turnout to be valid, the report continues, did not deter the government from hailing it as an “outstanding” victory, and using it to justify the 7th amendment to Hungary’s constitution since its adoption in 2012.

“Both referendum and proposal have been seen by critics across Europe as a move by which Viktor Orbán is trying to symbolically defy not only the EU’s refugee sharing scheme, but the EU’s role as opposed to that of nation states, and to promote its own ‘illiberal state’ model as opposed to the one professed by the EU,” states the report.