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Mar 30, 2020 - Zoltán Kovács

A few things you need to know about new Coronavirus Protection Act

Most of what you’ve read about Hungary’s new coronavirus protection law is fake news.

This afternoon, the Hungarian National Assembly passed with a two-thirds majority the Act on the Protection Against the Cornavirus. The new law extends the state of emergency and empowers the government to take additional extraordinary measures to protect the population against the spread of the coronavirus.

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about this law, so let’s set a few things straight.

Q: What powers would the law provide the government?

A: According to the Preamble of the law, the Parliament allows the government to take all necessary emergency measures to prevent and respond to the human epidemic of COVID-19. Firstly, the support of a two-thirds majority of Parliament allows the government, if necessary, to go beyond the requirements of the Disaster Management Act; secondly, it would confirm the government's orders enacted so far; and finally, it would authorize the government to extend its regulations and various measures until the end of the state of emergency – or, more precisely, the state of danger, as it is referred to in the Fundamental Law.

In short, it extends the state of danger and the existing extraordinary measures and allows the government to introduce new extraordinary measure explicitly to prevent and respond to the human epidemic of COVID-19.

Q: Does it give PM Orbán unlimited power?

No. The government can exercise these extraordinary powers only to prevent, treat, eradicate and remedy harmful effects of the human epidemic [2§ (2)]. And the government must still answer to Parliament (see below).

Furthermore, the Fundamental Law makes it clear that during a state of danger, the application of the Fundamental Law cannot be suspended, the operation of the Constitutional Court cannot be restricted, and the government cannot restrict the most fundamental rights.

Q: Does the law establish a state of emergency that can last without limit?

No. The parliament can lift the state of emergency – state of danger, as we call it – at any time. Furthermore, the state of danger applies specifically to the coronavirus epidemic. We all hope the epidemic will end soon, and with it so will the state of danger and these extraordinary measures.

"At any given moment, Parliament must be in a position to take back the right of decision from the government,” Prime Minister Orbán told the National Assembly during last Monday’s debate. “I don't need a fixed deadline. You can take it back tomorrow morning if you consider it inadequate."

Q: Does the law dissolve Parliament?

No. In fact, it requires the government to regularly inform Parliament about measures being taken to counter the emergency as long as said measures remain in force. If Parliament is not in session or lacks a quorum, the government must provide information to the House Speaker and the heads of the parliamentary political groups.

By the way, as Miklós Szánthó pointed out in his guest post, the governing parties have a two-thirds majority in the democratically elected parliament – a mandate given to them by the Hungarian voters.  So why would the government want to dissolve parliament?

Q: Does the law create prison terms for spreading fake news and rumors?

No. It introduces sanctions for acts far more specific and more dangerous than “spreading fake news and rumors.” The law makes it a criminal act to intentionally spread false information and distortions that could undermine or thwart efforts to protect the public against the spread of the virus. It’s in force only during the state of danger. It’s about intentionally reporting false information that endangers.

When it comes to restrictions on intentionally reporting false and dangerous information the legal precedents are many.

Q: What does the Hungarian public say about the state of danger and the extraordinary measures?

Some 90 percent of Hungarians, according to recent polls, say that the state of danger that introduced the extraordinary legal measures should be extended. On the question of how long, nearly 60 percent say that the state of danger and the extraordinary measures should be extended until the end of the pandemic.

The liberal media and its noisy Twittersphere have been posting furiously about this legislation, but most of the reporting is based on poor information or simply unadulterated bias.

Meanwhile, the government is fighting a war with an unknown enemy. Our priority is to protect our people, and we’re going to do everything in our power to flatten the curve, slow the spread of the virus and save lives.