a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and media were active and expressed a wide range of views. There were some formal restrictions on content related to “hate speech.”
On March 30, as part of the government’s legislative package declaring a state of emergency due to COVID-19, parliament permanently amended the criminal code to increase the penalty for spreading a “falsehood” or “distorted truth” (“scaremongering”) that could obstruct or prevent successful protection under a special legal order to imprisonment of up to five years (see section 3 for more on the state of emergency). Government officials asserted that the legislation sought to discourage the spread of harmful “fake news” that could hinder attempts to keep the pandemic under control. Domestic and international observers spoke out against the legislation and raised concerns about its potential effects on media freedom. On March 27, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concerns that the amendments could negatively affect the work of journalists and have a potentially chilling effect on freedom of expression. On March 26, Reporters without Borders (RSF) stated that the law granted the government a tool to threaten journalists and intimidate them into self-censorship. On April 21, RSF also noted that before the legislation was submitted, “progovernment media organizations” had called for the arrest of journalists critical of the government.
On June 25, the Constitutional Court ruled that the 2018 government decree classifying the nonprofit Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA)–which experts estimated controls between 80 and 90 percent of all commercial Hungarian media outlets and is managed by Fidesz party allies–as being of “national strategic importance” was constitutional. The Competition Authority and the Media Council cannot scrutinize transactions categorized as of national strategic significance. Government-linked media mounted mostly ad hominem attacks against the owner of the country’s largest independent media group. A law granting members of parliament the right to enter the offices of public buildings was repealed in 2019, and they now require prior notification or permission; experts viewed this as a response to opposition members of parliament having attempted to enter government and state-run media facilities as a form of protest. The European Commission reported that KESMA represented an “increased risk to media pluralism.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government set up an Operative Board to manage and communicate government action. Operative Board members answered press questions submitted in writing and in advance at daily press briefings. Independent and government-critical media repeatedly complained that their questions were rarely answered.
Freedom of Speech: Criminal law provides that any person who publicly incites hatred against any national, ethnic, racial, religious, or certain other designated groups of the population may be prosecuted and convicted of a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. The constitution includes hate speech provisions to “protect the dignity of the Hungarian nation or of any national, ethnic, racial, or religious community.” The law prohibits the public denial of, expression of doubt about, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes of the National Socialist (Nazi) and communist regimes; such crimes are punishable by up to three years in prison. The law also prohibits as a misdemeanor the wearing, exhibiting, or promoting of the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, the symbols of the Arrow Cross, the hammer and sickle, or the five-pointed red star in a way that harms human dignity or the memory of the victims of dictatorships. Judicial remedies exist for damage to individuals and communities that results from hate speech; however, NGOs representing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community reported that police officers continued to resist classifying incidents as hate speech and were unfamiliar with police hate crime protocols (see section 6). The media law also prohibits media content intended to incite hatred or violence against specific minority or majority communities and their members. The law includes the provision that media content must not have the potential to instigate an act of terrorism.
On May 12, police went to the home of a man from Borsod County with a search warrant based on suspicion of COVID-19 “scaremongering” because of his April 28 social media post. The man had questioned the government’s decision to lift curfew restrictions the day after a peak of the pandemic and appealed to “our dear dictator, our dear leader.” Police published photos and videos of the arrest, which was widely reported. Police released him that afternoon after questioning and told him he would not be charged since no crime had been committed.
On May 13, police also carried out a home raid and detained Janos Csoka-Szucs, a member of the opposition Momentum party in the town of Gyula, for a comment he made in a closed Facebook group on April 20. Csoka-Szucs had shared a post from an independent member of parliament about a protest against the government’s decision to discharge patients from hospitals to make room for potential COVID-19 cases. Police claimed his post “jeopardized the effectiveness of the defense in an emergency.” He was released after four hours of questioning, but police seized his computer and mobile phone. NGOs and opposition parties claimed the arrest was an attempt to suppress free speech and intimidate opponents of the government.
A law approved in 2018 imposed a 25 percent tax on civil entities that aid or promote illegal immigration, including groups that support media campaigns deemed to aid or promote immigration. Several NGOs sharply criticized the law, noting that it penalizes the public expression of opinions different from that of the government (see also section 5). According to press reports, no entity had paid any tax in 2019 under the law, and no known tax office investigation or audit had been conducted to that effect.
On September 21, the independent news outlet Telex reported that, in a June 2 letter, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade deputy state secretary for development of European affairs, Jozsef Magyar, asked the country’s EU-based embassies to report the professional visits of Hungarian journalists to those countries. According to the report, the letter asked the embassies to report when the visit(s) took place, which Hungarian outlets took part, and the organizations or local press outlets with which they met. In response to Telex’s query as to the purpose of gathering such information, the ministry stated: “To fulfill its mandate, [the ministry] is doing everything against foreign interference in Hungarian domestic affairs. Experience has shown that Soros organizations tend to be behind such attacks.”
On September 29, the Prosecutor General’s Office indicted the president of the Momentum party, Andras Fekete-Gyor, and another member of the party on the charge of assaulting law enforcement personnel during the 2018 protests against the government’s changes to the labor code, which critics dubbed the “slave law” (see section 7). Fekete-Gyor declared he was innocent of the charges, which he described as politically motivated, and opposition Democratic Coalition party released a statement of support, arguing that the government was attempting to use the justice system to stifle freedom of expression.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without formal restriction. Media consolidation resulted in further expansion of government-friendly enterprises and reduction in other media voices. Some new independent media outlets were founded, one of them by reporters from a formerly independent outlet. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) relaunched its Hungarian service on September 8.
In February the beverage company Hell Energy Drink brought a lawsuit against the monthly magazine Forbes Hungary after it published a list of the richest Hungarians. Forbes was forced to recall the issue from newsstands because the privately owned family beverage company argued that the magazine had breached their privacy under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In October the company also obtained a court order barring the publication of parts of an article in the weekly Magyar Narancs, which noted that companies connected to the family had received large amounts in state and EU grants and subsidized loans in previous years, citing again GDPR regulations.
On March 31, government-aligned media mogul Miklos Vaszily purchased 50 percent of Indamedia, the advertising sales company that generated virtually all revenues for the independent news site Index, at the time the country’s most visited online news outlet. With ad revenues decreasing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a newly appointed adviser proposed a reorganization plan that would have stripped part of the editorial board’s control. In June, Index’s editor in chief, Szabolcs Dull, publicly opposed the proposal, warning that the outlet was under increasing political pressure. In response, Laszlo Bodolai, chairman of the board of Index’s parent foundation, fired Dull on July 22. Bodolai asserted that Dull’s actions had endangered Index’s economic viability while denying that the outlet’s independence was at risk. Index journalists publicly called Dull’s dismissal “unacceptable” and an open attempt at pressure, which would lead to “the end of independent reporting.” On July 24, more than 70 journalists–the majority of Index’s staff–resigned in protest. On November 23, Indamedia announced it had purchased all of Index’s shares. As of November the website was still operating under the same name but with different staff and with far fewer investigative stories.
Some progovernment outlets relied almost completely on government advertising for their revenues. According to Freedom House, “while private, opposition-aligned media outlets exist, national, regional, and local media are increasingly dominated by progovernment outlets, which are frequently used to smear political opponents and highlight false accusations. Government advertising and sponsorships favored progovernment outlets, leaving independent and critical outlets in a financially precarious position.” The European Commission stated that advertising directed at progovernment outlets permitted the government to exert indirect control over media.
The government and government-linked entities often excluded independent and opposition media from their events and press conferences.
The National Media and Info-Communications Authority (NMHH), subordinate to parliament, is the central state administrative body for regulating media. The authority of the NMHH includes overseeing the operation of broadcast and media markets as well as “contributing to the execution of the government’s policy in the areas of frequency management and telecommunications.” The NMHH president serves as the chair of the five-member Media Council, the decision-making body of the NMHH that supervises broadcast, cable, online, and print media content and spectrum management. The NMHH consists exclusively of persons named by the governing parties. Some experts criticized the NMHH’s frequency awarding practices for allegedly penalizing radio stations that are critical of the government. In December 2019 the NMHH declined to extend the frequency license of a prominent Budapest community radio station, citing previous minor violations of the media law for which the station had already been fined. The station continued to operate online throughout the year. The Capital City Court of Law ruled in July that a September 2019 Media Council resolution that exonerated a public television station from accusations of unlawful bias violated the media law. The court ordered the Media Council to conduct new proceedings into the case. In September the NMHH announced it would not renew the frequency license for Klubradio, set to expire in February 2021, due to minor national content violations. Klubradio had previously broadcast news critical of the government.
The state news agency, MTI, which offers its services free of charge, is mandated by law to provide balanced, objective, nonpartisan coverage. Media watchdogs and independent outlets criticized the state media for concealing facts and opinions unfavorable to the government. Because MTI’s news services are free, its news products are broadcast widely by national and local outlets. Opposition politicians complained that they were rarely able to appear on state-run broadcasts or were given significantly less time to articulate their positions.
A November independent press report described a concerted effort by state-run media to promote the political agenda of Fidesz ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections. The report included audio recordings from officials at state media conglomerate MTVA from March and April 2019, in which MTVA chief editor Balazs Bende and news director Zsolt Nemeth were heard directing MTVA employees to promote the government agenda in advance of the elections. Bende made repeated threats that employees were to get on board with the directive or “get out.” According to the independent press report, the Media Council stated it had “received a complaint which was being investigated.”
The speaker of parliament, Laszlo Kover, continued to ban parliamentary access for various individuals–primarily journalists–for alleged violations of parliamentary rules. On May 26, the ECHR ruled that the bans Kover imposed on journalists working for independent and government-critical media in the spring of 2016 unlawfully restricted the work of media and violated the rights of the reporters. Kover issued a statement declaring that the ruling did not mandate his office to change the existing rules governing press work.
Violence and Harassment: There were no reports of violence against journalists or of physical or legal harassment. Nevertheless, government officials and government-aligned media continued to refer to some independent journalists as “Soros agents” or “Soros mercenaries” and independent media as the “Soros media,” or in one instance as the “Soros blog.” In 2018 an investigative reporter for an independent news website was admonished in a summary procedure before a district court in Budapest for alleged abuse of personally identifiable information by using publicly available information in an article on a Hungarian person who criticized Sweden’s migration policy. The reporter demanded a full trial. In September 2019 another court notified the reporter of its nonbinding resolution exonerating him, since the person in question was a public figure who must tolerate in-depth scrutiny in the public interest. The prosecutors appealed the court ruling, and the Capital City Appeal Court remanded the case to the original court for a new trial in February. The case remained pending as of November.
In November 2019 an extreme right-wing website published an anti-Semitic drawing of a journalist from an independent outlet, which was then shared by a mainstream progovernment outlet. A few days later, anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli posters appeared in downtown Budapest with the photographs of two reporters who at that time worked for the country’s most widely read news site. The posters suggested the two journalists were foreign agents. The Action and Protection Foundation and the mayor of the district where the posters appeared filed police reports, citing hate speech, against unknown perpetrators. In March the chief of the Budapest police told a press outlet that no proceedings had been launched as there was no indication of a public crime, and no private prosecution had been initiated.
On multiple occasions, government-aligned outlets criticized nongovernment-aligned, independent, and international journalists by name for their reporting. The outlets, many of which belong to the Fidesz-affiliated media conglomerate KESMA (see above), accused these journalists, among other accusations, of being “Soros agents” and, on at least one occasion, reported comments calling for a journalist to be prosecuted under the “scaremongering” provision of the COVID-19 state of emergency law. Some publications included details about the journalists’ backgrounds, where they reside, and photographs of them. Some journalists and commentators were specifically named on multiple occasions, including by a government representative in a press briefing.
For example, an April 16 article in a KESMA-held media outlet published the names of two international journalists, claiming that the “sole purpose of their article was to denigrate the Hungarian government” and included pictures of the journalists. On April 9, the host of a KESMA-held news channel identified by name one of the journalists who resides in Budapest as a native of another country. In an April 16 press conference, the head of the Prime Minister’s Office, Gergely Gulyas, singled out one of the international reporters for criticism over his reporting. An April 6 article in the KESMA-held Magyar Nemzet quoted a constitutional lawyer who said an article the journalist published on COVID-19 in Hungary qualified as the “spread of horror” and therefore a crime under the scaremongering provision of the emergency law. The lawyer also suggested that a Hungarian news portal that reported on the article should be liable under the law, and both comments were later reported on a KESMA-held news channel. Journalists targeted in this manner by media and government officials reported receiving threats to their safety from individuals.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides content regulations and standards for journalistic rights, ethics, and norms that are applicable to all media, including news portals and online publications. It prohibits inciting hatred against nations; communities; ethnic, linguistic, or other minorities; majority groups; and churches or religious groups. It provides for maintaining the confidentiality of sources with respect to procedures conducted by courts or authorities.
The law mandates that every media service provider that delivers news to the public must report in a balanced manner, and that public service media providers should pursue balanced, accurate, detailed, objective, and responsible news and information services. These requirements were widely disregarded, including by public media. Public television station M1 and its news website, hirado.hu, launched a segment monitoring “fake news” related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The independent media watchdog Mertek Media Monitor noted in a June 16 analysis that the featured reports were “a mix of items published on actual fake news sites and of articles published by independent and government-critical media that obviously do not seem like fake news at all; in fact, the series even included as alleged fake news statements by opposition politicians.”
The Media Council may impose fines for violations of content regulations, including on media services that violate prohibitions on inciting hatred or violating human dignity or regulations governing the protection of minors. The Council may impose fines of up to 200 million forints ($666,000), depending on the nature of the infringement, type of media service, and audience size. It may also suspend the right to broadcast for up to one week. Defendants may appeal Media Council decisions but must appeal separately to prevent the implementation of fines while the parties litigate the substantive appeal.
As of August 24, the Media Council had issued 86 resolutions concerning various alleged violations of the media law, of which 57 imposed fines totaling some 23.14 million forints ($77,800) on 46 media service providers.
Libel/Slander Laws: Journalists reporting on an event may be judged criminally responsible for making or reporting false statements. Both individuals and media outlets may be sued for libel for their published statements or for publicizing libelous statements made by others. Plaintiffs may litigate in both civil and criminal courts.
Public officials and other public figures continued to use libel and defamation laws in response to criticism from citizens and journalists. Opposition politicians and government-critical private individuals sued government-allied media outlets in several high-profile cases. Courts tended to pass verdicts that protected private individuals from libel or slander by government-affiliated media and their reporters.