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Mar 21, 2020 - Zoltán Kovács

Stop fake news: Spreading false information during a state of emergency is wrong and dangerous

Particularly false information that undermines our best efforts to protect the population against a dangerous pandemic.

Some in the international media are grossly distorting the facts about a proposed law in Hungary.

On Friday, the government proposed legislation that would extend the duration of the extraordinary measures (those put in place to fight the coronavirus) until the end of the state of emergency. It also includes provisions to cover the possibility of a “forced parliamentary break,” which some media said was “prompting concerns.” But that is in the text because if Parliament has no quorum (because more than half of the MPs are missing), it will not be able to extend the state of emergency. Unless the Parliament has a quorum, all of our regulations in connection with the state of emergency will expire.

The draft legislation would prohibit elections or referenda until the end of the state of emergency. Mind you, Hungary doesn’t have any elections scheduled in the near future, but we’re seeing examples in other countries where they’re postponing elections.

The proposed law would also impose new sanctions against those who undermine the effort to protect the country against the spread of the virus. In particular, the law would make it a criminal offense to spread false information that may confuse large groups of people and provoke unrest. It would also make it a crime during the state of emergency to spread false information or distort facts in such a way that it obstructs or hampers efforts to protect against the spread of the virus.

What was the response from the liberal, mainstream press? Orbán is going to jail journalists!

Like a well-rehearsed orchestra, they jumped on the story. Direkt36 and POLITICO Europe correspondents, citing AFP coverage, began circulating the sensational line that “Hungarian journalists could end up spending several years in jail” and that it’s meant to distract from the real story, which is the shortage of face masks and an unprepared healthcare system unprepared.

As I responded on Twitter this afternoon, this proposed law is like the sanction against falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. That’s the classic legal analogy for speech that is not protected because it is dangerous and false.

That’s what the proposed Hungarian law is saying, creating sanction for reckless speech that could impair or thwart efforts to protect people from the spread of the virus. We’re in a state of emergency, by the way. Lives are at stake. This gross distortion of the facts is biased and irresponsible.