Hungary Defends “Orwellian Law” Amid Criticism

By Stefan J. Bos, Special Correspondent Worthy News reporting from Budapest, Hungary

(Worthy News) – Hungary has condemned global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) for saying that an “Orwellian law” has imposed an “information police state” in the country. RSF urged two United Nations rapporteurs to condemn the governments of Hungary and dozens of other nations for “violating the right to information” about the coronavirus pandemic.

The group expressed concern about Hungary’s new coronavirus law that potentially allows up to five years imprisonment for journalists accused of spreading “fake news” about the outbreak. “While courts will have the last word on any possible sanctions…in reality, it is the government that can, at the outset, arbitrarily decide whether a media report is true or false.”

RSF said the new law “allows the government to exercise direct control over newsrooms that are not toeing its line in their reporting.” It noted that state media already called for the arrests of “coronavirus collaborators” of independent media. “This Orwellian law introduces a full-blown information police state in the heart of Europe,” said Pavol Szalai, the RSF’s head of European Union and Balkans desk. “All European institutions must mobilize to preserve what is left of press freedom in Hungary.”

However, in a statement obtained by Worthy News, the right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán denied wrongdoing. “From his photo, Mr. Szalai looks like he’s probably old enough to remember a time when [Emmanuel] Macron was not the president of France. But he’s likely too young to remember what the police state looked like in Hungary prior to 1989,” said Zoltán Kovács, state-secretary for international communications and relations.

“One would hope that he’d know better,” he added in an email message sent to a Worthy News reporter in Budapest. “But I can tell you the police state wasn’t fun and didn’t look anything like today’s Hungary,” he added, referring to the previous Communist regime. Kovács also noted that RSF is funded by liberal billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, though many other donors are mentioned on the RFS website. Besides Hungary, RSF lists 37 nations with “cases of censorship, arbitrary detention, harassment or violence against journalists, and disturbing legislative development.”

As other examples, RSF accused the Brazilian and US presidents of staging “ferocious verbal attacks on journalists.” It also said that reporters had been detained in Algeria, Jordan, and Zimbabwe. Additionally, “Cambodia’s prime minister has used the COVID-19 crisis to bolster his authority. And in China, the suppression of journalism allowed the epidemic to spread in Wuhan, and then to the rest of the world.”

RSF stressed that it is “also very concerned about journalists in Turkey and Saudi Arabia who, despite the epidemic, are still detained in prisons where they are very vulnerable to the virus.” The examples are mentioned in an RSF letter sent April 13 to the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to health, the Lithuanian Dainius Pūras, and the special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the American David Kaye. RSF demands in the letter that the officials, “Condemn governments that have either used the epidemic as grounds for violating the right to information. Or have done so despite it.”

The facts in the document were gathered by a new RSF tool called Tracker-19. It is a reference not only to COVID-19 but also to article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the group explained. “This RSF tool aims to evaluate the COVID-19 pandemic’s consequences for journalism, documenting state censorship, and deliberate disinformation. And their impact on the right to reliable news and information. It also offers recommendations on how to defend journalism during the pandemic.”

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