Apr 04, 2020 - Adrien Müller

Ambassador of Hungary to Sweden rejects the Swedish media’s attack on the Coronavirus Bill

Articles and opinions criticizing Hungary’s rule of law are not based on facts and misinterpret both the state of emergency measures and the aim of the Coronavirus Bill. A state of emergency was declared in Hungary only to protect the health and lives of its citizens and to enable the authorities to take effective measures.

A few days ago, I sent a letter to Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter in response to attacks on Hungary’s measures to tackle the coronavirus epidemic. In a shocking display of dismissing Hungary’s right of reply, here’s how the newspaper responded:

"Thank you for your letter. We do not intend to publish your reply.”

Dagens Nyheter – along with a few other Swedish media outlets – recently published several extremely negative articles about Hungary’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g. “Orbán uses the virus to gain unlimited power in Hungary,” published on March 27, and “Now Orbán has no one to blame if things go bad,” published on March 30, both written by Ingmar Nevéus), harshly criticizing measures aimed at fighting the epidemic. What’s more, quite a number of Swedish politicians have once again expressed their concerns over Hungary. Most probably we are not far from the truth if we say they have not read and do not understand the rules they criticize so loudly.

The following is my letter to the editor, the letter that Dagens Nyheter refused to publish:

Dagens Nyheter’s recent articles and opinions are not based on facts and misinterpret the aims and the content of Coronavirus Bill adopted by the Hungarian Parliament. The authors formulate unfounded statements and demonstrate a lack of understanding for the legislation providing appropriate means for the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. For them, I present a few facts. 

In order to contain the pandemic and mitigate the economic crisis, a number of extraordinary measures have been introduced by all EU Member States. In accordance with the Hungarian Constitution, a state of emergency was declared in Hungary by the government in order to protect the life and health of citizens and to enable authorities to take effective measures. These exceptional measures remain in force only for 15 days, unless the government receives an authorization by Parliament to extend them.

So, what has happened to trigger the critics’ wrath? Nothing more than the Hungarian Parliament in accordance with the Constitution gave its authorization by a two-thirds majority to extend the applicability of the exceptional rules related to the state of emergency to fight the pandemic (Coronavirus Bill). There is no power grab, but a democratic decision by Hungary’s legislative body.

Contrary to some allegations and catchy headlines, the Coronavirus Bill does not seek to remove democratic checks and balances, neither does it limit the powers and activities of the Parliament, which remains in session. All authorities, including the Constitutional Court – something that is not present in Sweden – continue to operate in the constitutional and legal framework when applicable.

Concerns regarding an “indefinite opportunity for dictatorship” or “despotism”, as Dagens Nyheter portrays, should be dismissed without merit. The authorization given by the Parliament within the Coronavirus Bill is not unlimited. It is subject to many conditions and is limited in scope, substance and time. The government may only adopt exceptional measures that are necessary and proportionate in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic to protect citizens’ life, health and security as well as the stability of the national economy. It is a matter of fact that there is no fixed end date for the state of emergency in the Bill, as we cannot foresee the end of the pandemic. Do you foresee it? I doubt it. But the Hungarian Parliament can revoke the authorization given to the government, either in general or in the case of specific measures, at any time if it deems appropriate and the exceptional measures will cease to be in force when the state of emergency ends. Something we all hope for.

Now, let’s compare Hungary’s measures to the Swedish rules. Allow me to ask this, is there a legally set timeframe for the ban on large gatherings of people (50+) introduced by the Swedish government? Of course not. The Swedish government’s decree, as it says,  is applicable until further notice. Furthermore, is the Swedish government obliged to turn to the Riksdag at a certain time after restrictive measures are introduced? Well, the response is no.

There were also worries that “spreading fake news and rumors” will be declared a crime in Hungary, which would target the opposition media. Let’s be honest here, none of us likes fake news, but actually these rules are about something else. As we talk about the Criminal Code each and every word has an important meaning, please, read it with attention. The law criminalizes the act when a person, during the period of a special legal order and in front of a large audience, states or disseminates any untrue fact or any misrepresented true fact that is capable of hindering or preventing the efficiency of protection. We are talking about intentionally spreading false information and the distortions that could undermine or thwart efforts to protect the public against the spread of the virus, and the timeframe is also limited to the emergency situation of the current pandemic.

Those concerned about the Hungarian government’s emergency measures should take a closer look at what is being done in every Member State of the EU, rather than single out one country. Using double standards, false statements and misinterpretations never leads to trustworthy journalism and to constructive relations between countries. The situation calls for unity, support, respect and cooperation between Member States. And, in regards to the media, I call for responsible journalism.

The author of this guest post is the ambassador of Hungary to Sweden.

Photo credit: CNBC