The Hungarian government is seeking to extend indefinitely the country's state of emergency because of the coronavirus epidemic, leading some to fear an unjustified power grab and an erosion of press freedoms in a country where the ruling party has long been accused of acting undemocratically.
The bill debated Monday in Parliament would grant the government special powers, including the ability to rule by decree without parliamentary approval, for as long as the government considers it necessary in light of the epidemic.
It would also set prison terms of up to five years for those convicted of spreading false information about the epidemic, and of up to eight years for those judged to have interfered with efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Speaking at the start of Monday's parliamentary session, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the state of emergency provides the government "with the resources to organize Hungary's self-defense.”
“Everyone needs to step out of their comfort zone," Orban said. "For a time, we have to work differently, act differently and we all have to organize our lives differently.”
But opposition parties and rights groups are criticizing the proposed indefinite extension of the state of emergency that was first introduced on March 11, and fear the government may curtail press freedoms in the name of fighting the new virus.
“You are asking for an authorization with no time limit, for which there is no example in all of Europe,” opposition lawmaker Timea Szabo said in response to Orban's remarks in Parliament. “You want to approve this law ... that practically authorizes you to govern without meaningful control and gives you a free hand to do away with even what's left of the free press.”
While they can't prevent the government from extending the state of emergency, opposition lawmakers were able to block an urgent vote on the proposal, delaying its approval until next week.
Orban swept aside opposition concerns about the indefinite length of the extraordinary measures, in part by pointing out that the government parties have a two-thirds majority in the legislature.
“The parliamentary guarantee over the government resides with this majority,” Orban said, referring to his Fidesz party and its Christian Democrat allies. “We thank you if you support us, we're happy to get advice and encouragement ... but we will solve this crisis without you, too.”
Orban said that while the spread of coronavirus is not stoppable for now, the goal is to slow the rate and number of infections and avoid having overwhelmed hospitals, like in Italy.
“If the defense is successful, then the epidemic will stretch out,” Orban said. "We have to plan ... so that ... the functioning health system does not stop for a single moment."
The Council of Europe's human rights expert expressed concerns about the lack of a “clear cut-off date" and other safeguards in the proposed legislation.
“Even in an emergency, it is necessary to observe the Constitution, ensure parliamentary & judicial scrutiny & right to information,” Dunja Mijatovic said in a tweet.
The Vienna-based International Press Institute said the threat against journalists and others who could be accused of spreading “fake news” was “a step toward total information control and the further suppression of press freedoms in the country.”
“While restrictions on individual freedoms may be necessary in the pandemic, any such measures must be necessary, proportionate, temporary and limited to solving the immediate health crisis — criteria that the Hungarian proposals do not appear to meet,” the IPI said in a statement, noting government efforts to dismantle press freedoms since Orban's return to power in 2010.
In Hungary, rights groups including the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, also criticized the proposed legislation
“We need strong rule of law safeguards and proportional and necessary emergency measures, not unlimited government rule by decree that can last beyond the actual epidemic crisis,” the groups said. “In the past decade, we’ve seen that the Hungarian government does not tolerate constitutional limitations on the exercise of its powers.”
Orban has been repeatedly criticized since 2010 for his efforts to weaken the system of democratic checks and balances; for filling nominally independent posts with beholden allies; for taking control over large swaths of the Hungarian media; for using the migration crisis to boost fear and xenophobia; for rising corruption; and for expanding the role of the state to the detriment of private and civic initiatives.
Speaking Monday on state television, Orban said the number of those infected with the coronavirus in Hungary is “clearly much higher than the 167 confirmed infection cases." Hungary has also reported seven deaths linked to COVID-19, while 16 people have recovered from the disease.
Hungary has closed off its borders to passenger traffic except mostly for its own citizens. Universities and schools are holding classes only through distance learning, public events have been canceled and people are being urged to stay home as much as possible.
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