By Tim Cushing
Every emergency brings with it the temptation for governments to grant themselves extra powers while they deal with the current crisis. When the coronavirus made its way into Hungary, it was too much for the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, to resist.
Hungary’s parliament has passed a new set of coronavirus measures that includes jail terms for spreading misinformation and gives no clear time limit to a state of emergency that allows the nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to rule by decree.[…]
The bill introduces jail terms of up to five years for intentionally spreading misinformation that hinders the government response to the pandemic, leading to fears that it could be used to censor or self-censor criticism of the government response.
There is no effective expiration date for Orban’s new “rule by decree” powers. And it’s the new quasi-fake news laws that are being used to target critics of the government. Say something derogatory about the government and you should probably expect a visit from the police.
A 64-year-old man was detained by police Tuesday morning at his home near Szerencs, in Borsod county, and taken into custody on suspicion of fearmongering. He was interrogated in connection with a post he made on Facebook on April 28 which, according to police, alleged that the country’s leadership had deliberately timed the lifting of curfew restrictions to coincide with the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, which the man suggested could lead to mass infections.
The man’s post did not meet the legal requirements for this charge, hence his release a couple of hours later. His post was addressed to “our dear dictator, our dear leader” and suggested relaxing curfew restrictions would result in a higher death rate. His post closed with him calling Orban a “cruel tyrant,” but nothing about the post could be construed to “inhibit” the government’s ability to contain the spread of the virus. It’s almost impossible for opinions to be “deliberate falsehoods” or “distorted facts” since opinions are not facts, false or otherwise.
This 64-year-old man may have been one of the first to be targeted by this new emergency power, but he’s far from the only one.
Hungary’s police said Wednesday they had opened 87 investigations over “scaremongering” since the emergency law took effect. And while some investigations appear to have targeted online posts promoting false facts, others have focused on citizens criticizing the Viktor Orbán government.
One “investigation” detailed in the Politico article involved an opposition activist who was similarly treated to an early morning visit from police over a social media post. Again, no formal charges were brought, but the message was sent all the same. The activist notes that it’s not just cops crawling web pages in search of people to prosecute. It’s also pro-government citizens who have turned themselves into an ad hoc snitch army to send cops to hassle critics.
Andras Kusinszki, the man taken from his home for calling Orban a dictator, told InsightHungary that the arrest had the intended effect: he will be posting fewer comments critical of Orban. Whether that was the law’s intent when it was hastily crafted doesn’t matter. That’s how it’s being used. And that makes the government’s defense of its actions particularly nonsensical.
Asked in a virtual press conference Thursday about the two recent cases, Orbán’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyás said the fact that some individuals were released after a few hours “shows the strength of the rule of law.”
No, it doesn’t. It shows the government will use a show of force to silence critics, even if it’s not willing to go as far as to engage in doomed-to-fail prosecutions. Getting someone out of bed, dumping them into a police car, and taking them in for questioning still sends a message. The message becomes even louder when it’s clear to everyone involved the supposedly criminal posts do not come anywhere close to violating these new laws.