Hungary to adopt new coronavirus law which provides for prison terms for spreading false information, critics warn that nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán may have carte blanche to rule by decree, with no clear time limit.
The Hungarian parliament, in which the Fidesz d’Orbán party has a two-thirds majority, is expected to pass the bill on Monday despite opposition from other political parties, which had asked for a delay or sunset clause on the legislation. .
The bill will also introduce prison terms of up to five years for intentionally disseminating false information that impedes the government’s response to the pandemic, raising concerns that it may be used to censor or self-censor critics of the government’s response.
As of Sunday morning, Hungary had 408 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 13 deaths, although real numbers should be higher. The country is subject to a partial lock, people being discouraged from going outside except for essential activities and schools, restaurants and many shops closed.
Rights groups and critics of government say that while it is clear that the coronavirus poses extraordinary challenges, some checks and balances should be put on the government’s response, particularly given the erosion of democratic standards d’Orbán during his 10 years in power.
“This bill would create an indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency and give Viktor Orbán and his government carte blanche to restrict human rights,” said David Vig, Amnesty InternationalFrom Hungary. “This is not the way to deal with the very real crisis that was caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The government tried to pass the bill last week, but four-fifths of MPs should have voted. Hungary’s liberal opposition has said that, while concerned about a number of elements of the law, it is prepared to ignore them in a spirit of compromise as long as an automatic deletion clause is introduced.
“Of course, we support the emergency. We agree with the government that there is an emergency and that they must do everything to combat it. We offered almost everything, but we asked for time, ”said Agnes Vadai, member of the democratic opposition coalition.
However, the ruling party has made it clear that it is not willing to back down on the sunset clause, she said. “I think from the very beginning they did not want to agree because they used everything for political communication,” said Vadai, referring to claims that the opposition’s position had been “unpatriotic” and helped spread the coronavirus.
The Orbán government has fiercely defended these measures. “I assure every Hungarian citizen that everything the government is doing has to do with fighting the coronavirus and protecting the lives and health of citizens,” Justice Minister Judit Varga said on Friday.