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Mar 25, 2020 - Zoltán Kovács

The OSCE’s double standards: Because…press freedom

Late last year, the OSCE softened its position on laws against “fake news” proposed by a Socialist government, laws that were being roundly criticized internationally. This week, the OSCE took a stance to express concerns about Hungary’s draft laws against dangerously false information in a state of emergency. If the government is leftist, it seems, laws against fake news are okay. But if not, then not so much. Because…press freedom.

On Monday, the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media expressed concerns about the draft law that the government of Hungary submitted to Parliament last Friday that would introduce additional measures to support the government’s efforts to protect the population against the spread of the coronavirus.

“[T]here is a great risk that the new regulation will not so much penalize the disseminators of harmful disinformation,” said the Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, “but instead make the work of independent journalism more difficult.”

How? He does not say. Instead, the OSCE official adds this bizarre note: “In the current situation, the media has a crucial role to play in providing important information to the public and to counter ‘fake news’ on the pandemic.”

But that’s what these laws are about – even more so. They would sanction dangerously false information.

Here’s what that passage of the draft law actually says. It would create criminal sanctions during the state of emergency for spreading:

“false information or a fact distorted in such a fashion that it could undermine or thwart the effectiveness of the protective measures [against the coronavirus].”

That’s reasonable and precedented. But the OSCE Representative, Mr. Désir, is concerned.

A couple of interesting facts about Mr. Désir. He’s a former head of the French Socialist Party. Late last year, Désir found himself in some hot water for his soft stance on laws in Albania.

Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama was pushing through a controversial package of laws that would impose hefty fines for publishing fake news.

The European Commission and the Council of Europe had expressed “deep concerns” that the laws were not compatible with international and human rights standards. International press freedom NGOs also joined the fight.

After traveling to Tirana to meet his Socialist colleague, who would just weeks later be taking up the chair of the OSCE, Désir softened the OSCE’s stance, essentially giving tacit approval to the drafts, which the Albanian Parliament approved just a few days later.

I’m not commenting in any way on the substance of the Albanian law. The Hungarian draft laws are in fact quite narrow and specific in that they would apply only during the state of emergency and to information that is dangerously false.

It’s difficult to take these expressions of concern seriously when they are so clearly misinformed and applying double standards. We’re in a state of emergency. Lives are at stake. But whatever. The OSCE is concerned.