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Mar 28, 2020 - Zoltán Kovács

Responding to the UN: If you are unable to help us in the current crisis, please at least refrain from obstructing our defense efforts

False claims of a power grab in Hungary are just that. Such insinuations are not only incorrect but defamatory, and impede the government’s efforts in slowing down the spread of the coronavirus.

The Hungarian government’s primary concern during the coronavirus pandemic is the protection of human lives. Those voicing unfounded claims about our management of this crisis threatening democracy and the rule of law in Hungary are fighting an imaginary enemy.

False claims of a power grab in Hungary are just that. Such insinuations are not only incorrect but defamatory, and impede the government’s efforts in slowing down the spread of the coronavirus.

The ”Defense Against Coronavirus” legislative proposal currently in front of Hungary’s Parliament has caused a great deal of unrest upon the international stage. The newest voice in this choir is Rupert Colville, Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“We understand that the legislation is expected to go again before the Hungarian Parliament next week and is likely to pass. The bill appears to give the government practically unlimited powers to rule by decree and bypass parliamentary scrutiny with no clear cut-off date,” Colville wrote in a statement.

“We are concerned, however, that the legislation as it is currently reported to be framed could negatively affect the legitimate work of journalists and have a potentially chilling effect on freedom of expression in Hungary,” he added.

Let’s make a few things clear.

What the UN Human Rights Office fails to recognize is that Hungary’s new legislative proposal is not part of a plot against the constitutional system; provisions included in the bill are, indeed, extraordinary measures that are unavoidable in an extraordinary situation in order to protect the rule of law and to promote the public good.

The bills proposed amendment to the Criminal Code to include sanctions against intentionally spreading false information or distortions, or “scaremongering,” is in line with Hungary’s legislation.

The Fundamental Law of Hungary details the possible human rights restrictions in the case of a special legal order; and according to the Criminal Code being in force also makes scaremongering a punishable offense.

The new bill would add a new article to the Civil Code imposing a prison sentence of one-to-five years on anyone who “during the term of a special legal order, utters or publishes before the public at large a statement he knows to be false or with a reckless disregard for its truth or falsity in a way that is capable of hindering or thwarting the effectiveness of the containment effort.”

Taking into consideration the recently identified fake news and its impact (“Breaking news: Coronavirus vaccine discovered”, “Government to put Budapest under lockdown”, etc.) Fake news and deliberate distortions could potentially threaten human lives, and the state should have recourse to sanction them.

Regarding the concerns stating that the new provision would violate the freedom of expression, it is important to note that (1) the prohibition only relates to false statements of fact, not to critical opinions; (2) the prohibition only relates to a certain range of factual claims; (3) the prohibited act must be objectively capable of hindering or foiling the effectiveness of the containment effort; (4) the action must be intentional, just as in the other case of scaremongering and (5) independent courts – not the government or some state authority – must decide on questions about whether a statement is true or false, about its intent and aptitude, and whether it posed a threat to society.

In closing, I would have the same message for Rupert Colville that PM Orbán delivered earlier this week to Marija Pejcinovic Burić, secretary general of the Council of Europe: If you are unable to help us in the current crisis, please at least refrain from obstructing our defense efforts.