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May 30, 2020 - Zoltán Kovács

Liberal media reports vs. reality, Part 2: Sanctions against scaremongering and the spreading of fake news

Over the last several weeks of international reporting on Hungary, it’s been a little difficult to find examples of balanced coverage or some semblance of objectivity.

The Coronavirus Protection Act, the law that gave the government the power to purse extraordinary measures to protect the population against the spread of the pandemic, has been the focus of the coverage, and as I wrote in Part 1, we saw a good deal of misinformation and factually incorrect reporting on what the law really empowered the government to do (and what it didn’t). There was another part of the law that also received a curious amount of attention. Those were the clauses that sanctioned scaremongering and the dissemination of false information.

The coverage made some dramatic claims, accusing the Hungarian government of attempting to “silence journalists” and “limit freedom of speech.” There was a cautionary statement from sixteen EU member states, accusations of “a full-blown information police state,” and, of course, lots of retweeting of anything critical of PM Orbán.

In fact, the law introduced sanctions not for simply expressing one’s opinion but for very specific acts: the spread of false information and distortions that could undermine or thwart efforts to protect the public against the spread of the virus. The key characteristics there are false information that endangers, and there is plenty of precedent for such laws in western democracies, and not only when operating under a state of emergency.

Fortunately, there were a few clear-headed politicians who stood above the raucous noise. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen highlighted the risks posed by coronavirus-related misinformation. “Those spreading disinformation harm you. Disinformation can cost lives,” she pointed out in her video statement. UN Secretary-General António Guterres conveyed a similar message describing coronavirus as a “global misinfo-demic.”

But instead of heeding these clear statements of concern from other leaders, mainstream media were busy misinterpreting the Hungarian legislation, while we were all working hard to fight the spread of the pandemic.

Reporters Without Borders wrote that Orbán’s Orwellian law would take total control over national media and the government would decide whether a media report is true or false. They even illustrated their point with an index (of their own creation, of course) to bolster their biased argument.

Deutsche Welle described the Hungarian media as ideological, one-sided and anti-democratic, while The Guardian claimed that “the right’s new strongmen” from Brazil to Hungary were twisting the law according to their own goals, attacking the rule of law, and practicing censorship over the media in order to make the law a tool of right-wing politics.

The slanted reporting and outrageous double standards helped no one. Not a single Hungarian journalist was put behind bars, of course, and Hungary’s free press is very much alive and kicking.

Now, because our efforts to fight the virus have apparently got us through the first wave, the government has sent a bill to parliament proposing to lift these extraordinary measures, just as Prime Minister Orbán promised he would.