Hungary: freedom of speech is at stake again

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU, or “TASZ” in Hungarian) has criticized a new law, enacted by the Hungarian Parliament on 5 November, because it further restricts freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The new law punishes by up to three years in prison the creation and distribution of video or voice recordings made for the purpose of harming another person’s dignity – wrote Dalma Dojcsak.

The new law takes the unusual step of punishing the mere making of a false video or voice recording, even if the recording is seen or heard by no one else. Therefore, the persons who prepare or modify such recordings just for their own entertainment in the privacy of their own home risk a criminal procedure and jail time of up to one year. If the false recording is shown to even one other person, the punishment for both maker and distributor increases to two years. If the false recording is shown more widely (and the law sets no objective criteria for what is a wide distribution), then both the makers of the video and those who distribute it risk up to three years in jail. The bill amended the provisions of the Criminal Code (CC) for the purposes of the protection of human dignity and the preclusion of falsifying evidence.

This proposed tightening of the Criminal Code is a reaction from the governing parties to the so called Baja video scandal. A video was obtained by, a popular weekly’s web-based version. The video was presented as secretly taken, and allegedly depicted a vote-buying scene in rural Hungary, committed in favor of the ruling party Fidesz. It was soon shown to have been a staged enactment, even though there were credible allegations of vote-buying that may have in fact occurred during the by-election in question. The executive editor of hvg admitted fault and resigned. So did the communications director of the main opposition Socialist party, through whose hands the video passed on the way to the hvg editor. The actual origin of the video remains unknown.

The Baja incident is under an ongoing criminal procedure, and the proposers of the bill gave no explanation as to why it is not sufficient to leave impeachment of the video forgers to the regular mechanisms of the judicial system. This sort of voluntarist tightening of criminal law raises doubts about whether democratic institutions, like the Parliament, are really fulfilling their constitutional functions, and undermines trust in the judicial branch of government. A constitutional democracy cannot afford to let this happen.

The entire Hungarian media regulation landscape had grown increasingly restrictive even before the newly defined “crime”. The infamous media laws enacted in 2010 and 2011 were widely criticized by domestic and international bodies and NGOs. However, a wave of defamation and “hooliganism” procedures have since been initiated against journalists and others expressing critical political opinions. For example, during an anti-government rally on 29 September a paper sculpture of the prime minister was pulled down. Another case involved the mounting of a political banner on a pillar of Budapest’s Chain Bridge on 24 October. After each of these acts of symbolic political speech, the police initiated hooliganism procedures. A historian who described the far-right Jobbik political party as “neo-fascist” was found guilty of breach of good repute by a first instance court in March. People who have criticized public officials have been sued and, even though not all of the suits have resulted in fines, harassment through litigation in an increasingly repressive political climate sends a chilling message to those who would otherwise criticize the government and the members of the governing party.

Free speech by opposing voices is also restricted inside the Parliament, since the amended parliamentary rules empower the Speaker of the House to sanction speeches or conduct by the MPs deemed “injurious or indecent”. Sanctions may include withdrawal of the right to speak, expulsion from the chamber of the House or a fine of up to one month’s salary. Fines have been levied in many cases in which opposition MPs were articulating their criticism of the Government.

These components contribute to a self-censoring environment for the media and public debate that is alarming in light of the upcoming 2014 elections.

The opinion of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union on the draft bill can be downloaded here.

Source: Dalma Dojcsak IFEX and HCLU.