Victor Orban

Leading NGO Human Rights Watch has accused the Hungarian government of engaging in a ‘systematic attack on the rule of law’. The NGO made the allegation as a result of what it described as ‘interference’ with media freedom and pluralism in the country.

Human Rights Watch has made its claims as part of a 29 page report examining the obstacles and constraints independent journalists and media face under the government of Viktor Orban.

“The clear objective of hollowing out media freedom is to prevent the public from knowing what the government is doing or holding it to account,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, adding: “The European Union needs to recognize the attack on media as part of the Hungarian government’s erosion of the rule of law, and take action to address it, including by moving the Article 7 process forward urgently.”

Human Rights Watch says that since 2010, the ruling Fidesz-KDNP government has used its power to deliberately dismantle media freedom and pluralism through control over the media regulatory body, which has allowed pro-government outlets to dominate, by exerting direct political control over the public service broadcaster, and financially rewarding pro-government outlets.

Independent and investigative journalists face major obstacles in their work, including surveillance, threats, limited or no access to decision makers and public information and smear campaigns against them in pro-government media. Reporters Without Borders 2023 World Press Freedom report, ranked Hungary 72 out of 180 countries.

Human Rights Watch has interviewed representatives of media organizations, journalists and editors, and a media owner who have experienced what they describes as the harmful effects of the clampdown. The attacks on the free press take place against the backdrop of the government’s persistent undermining of rule of law, its hijacking of public institutions, and its silencing of civil society groups and critical voices.

Human Rights Watch found that the government is using its near media monopoly to strengthen its hold on democratic institutions. This distortion of the media landscape obstructs the work of independent and investigative journalists and prevents the Hungarian public from accessing reliable and factual information to make informed political choices.

After Fidesz won the 2010 elections, the government started to seize control of the media. It used its two-thirds majority in parliament to overhaul media law, and packed the Media Authority, the media regulator, and its and Media Council with Fidesz loyalists. The government fired over 1,600 journalists and media workers at the public service broadcaster (MTVA), replacing them with government talking heads, effectively turning MTVA into a government-controlled broadcaster. Current and former MTVA employees told Human Rights Watch that reporters are told by their editors what and how to report, and which terms to use and to avoid, and if they do not like it, that they can pack and leave.

Independent journalists say that they have virtually no access to public data from state institutions or government officials and Fidesz politicians. Independent journalists and outlets are restricted, sometimes banned, from attending government news conferences.

The government’s increased control over the media market is linked to its broader assault on the rule of law in Hungary, including undermining  judicial independence and state capture of public institutions, Human Rights Watch said.

The European Parliament raised concerns about the lack of media pluralism in Hungary in 2018 when it triggered Article 7 proceedings against Hungary, the EU treaty-based mechanism to deal with EU states that put democracy and fundamental rights principles at risk. In May 2023, a European Parliament committee strongly condemned the illegitimate use of spyware by EU governments, including Hungary.

Human Rights Watch is calling for the European Commission to go further, saying it should urgently consider triggering infringement proceedings on Hungary on the basis of the Media Freedom Act.

Human Rights Watch also says that the EU Council should move its scrutiny forward under Article 7 over the threat that the Hungarian government’s actions pose to EU values, by adopting specific and time-bound rule-of-law recommendations and holding a vote to determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach of EU values in Hungary. As Hungary will take over the rotating EU Council presidency in July 2024, it is pivotal for the Council to act immediately to arrest the democratic backsliding, Human Rights Watch said.

“EU institutions should push the Article 7 process forward and use their legal enforcement powers to protect independent media and freedom of information currently under attack as a consequence of Hungary’s dismantling of the rule of law,” Williamson said, adding: “Independent journalism is a cornerstone of democracy and crucial for holding governments to account for power abuses.”

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