Hungary is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. The unicameral National Assembly (parliament) exercises legislative authority. It elects the president (the head of state) every five years. The president appoints a prime minister from the majority party or coalition in parliament following national elections every four years. In parliamentary elections in 2018, the Fidesz-Christian Democratic People’s Party alliance led by Fidesz party leader Viktor Orban won a two-thirds majority in parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election observation mission found that “fundamental rights and freedoms were respected overall, but exercised in an adverse climate.” Specifically, it characterized certain elements of the election as “at odds with the organization’s commitments” and noted, “The widespread government information campaign was largely indistinguishable from Fidesz campaigning, giving it a clear advantage.” Orban has been prime minister since 2010.
The National Police Headquarters, under the direction of the minister of interior, is responsible for maintaining order nationwide. The Counterterrorism Center is responsible for protecting the president and the prime minister and for preventing, uncovering, and detecting terrorist acts; it is directly subordinate to the minister of interior. The Hungarian Defense Forces are subordinate to the Ministry of Defense and are responsible for external security as well as aspects of domestic security and disaster response. Since 2015, under a declared state of emergency prompted by mass migration, defense forces may assist law enforcement forces in border protection and handling mass migration situations. The state of emergency was renewed in September for another six months. On April 29, the government amended a decree passed under the coronavirus state of emergency law that allows the minister of interior to involve police and the military to participate in the protection of medical resources and permits the military during the state of emergency to take part in street patrols and in monitoring compliance with security measures. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were no reports that members of the security forces committed abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: criminal penalties for spreading a “falsehood” or “distorted truth” or libel (although court decisions limited the impact of the latter); exposure of asylum seekers to risk of refoulement; allegations of corrupt use of state power to grant privileges to certain economic actors; reports of political intimidation of and legal restrictions on civil society organizations, including criminal and financial penalties for migration-related work of nongovernmental organizations; and threats of violence by extremists targeting Roma and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.
The government took some steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses. Impunity for human rights abuses was not widespread.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. There are no special bodies to investigate security force abuses. Authorities investigated and prosecuted alleged killings by members of the security forces in the same manner as alleged killings by civilians.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The constitution and law prohibit such practices, but there were reports that inhuman and degrading treatment and abuse sometimes occurred. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) noted that the investigation of cases of mistreatment was often inefficient, the success rate of holding officials accountable for alleged mistreatment through indictments and prosecutions was low, and in some cases law enforcement officials (such as police officers and penitentiary staff) who were sentenced to suspended imprisonment for committing criminal offenses involving the mistreatment of detainees were permitted to continue working.
On March 17, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) published a report on its 2018 visit to ascertain the situation of persons in police custody, juvenile prisoners, adult male prisoners serving life sentences or very long terms, and persons placed in social institutions. According to the report, there were some accounts of authorities resorting to unnecessary or excessive force when apprehending suspects and physical mistreatment of detainees shortly after arrival at police stations. There were also several accounts of racist verbal abuse. The report also noted some instances of interprisoner violence in juvenile prisons. Impunity among members of security forces was not a significant problem.
Official statistics and NGOs reported overcrowding and poor physical conditions in the prison system. There were occasional reports of physical violence by prison guards, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and authorities holding pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners together.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a problem. In December 2019 the Hungarian Prison Service reported that its facilities were occupied at 110 percent of capacity, a 3 percent decline from 2018. In response to a freedom of information request by the human rights NGO Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the National Prison Administration reported on June 18 that the prison occupancy rate was 112 percent.
On June 8, parliament adopted legislation that extended until December 31 the deadline for the state to pay compensation to inmates for inhuman or degrading prison conditions. After a court judgment, the general deadline for paying compensation was also extended from 60 days to 90 days. On December 16, parliament approved a bill submitted by the justice minister that restricted government compensation payments to those imprisoned in inhuman conditions.
NGOs continued to report poor physical and sanitary conditions in certain penitentiaries, including the presence of bedbugs and other insects, insufficient toilet facilities, and toilets not separated from living spaces. NGOs also noted frequent shortages of both natural and artificial lighting in cells, a lack of adequate heating, and a continued shortage of psychological care.
In August inmates at the detention center for foreigners in Nyirbator, and subsequently in Gyor, held a hunger strike. The detainees–who were awaiting deportation on noncriminal grounds and included some foreign citizens whose children hold Hungarian citizenship–reported the jail was overcrowded, with some alleging that authorities had not informed them of the reason for their detention.
Administration: NGOs reported that authorities occasionally failed to investigate credible allegations of mistreatment. There was no separate ombudsperson for prisons, but detainees could submit complaints to the ombudsperson or to the prosecutor’s office responsible for supervising the lawfulness of detention. The ombudsperson handled prison complaints and conducted ex officio inquiries but had no authority to act on behalf of prisoners.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities allowed the CPT and the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture to conduct periodic and ad hoc visits to prisons and detention centers for both the country’s citizens and foreign nationals. As of November the national preventive mechanism under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT) undertook 19 visits (seven to prisons, two to correctional facilities, seven to police facilities, and three to social institutions).
There has been no independent NGO monitoring of police detention centers and prisons since 2017, when authorities terminated monitoring agreements with NGOs. The government introduced COVID-19 measures in prisons, which included an almost full ban on in-person visits from family members in detention facilities and suspension of temporary leave for inmates, which made the facilities more closed and less transparent for the public, according to NGOs. In May the Hungarian Helsinki Committee called on the government to consider the early release of elderly and sick inmates due to the pandemic. Restrictions on inmates’ right to family life due to the pandemic stayed in place.
The office of the commissioner for fundamental rights (ombudsperson) continued to operate prison-monitoring services prescribed by OPCAT. The Independent Police Complaints Board was terminated in February, and complaints of police misconduct and mistreatment were handled by the ombudsperson’s office.
Improvements: On July 13, Minister of Justice Judit Varga announced new places for 2,750 inmates in the newly inaugurated wings of 10 prisons made from steel shipping containers located across the country.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these requirements.
Police are obligated to take into “short-term arrest” individuals apprehended while committing a crime or subject to an arrest warrant. Police may take individuals suspected of a crime or a petty offense into short-term arrest if they are unable or unwilling to identify themselves or are unaccompanied minors suspected of having run away. Short-term arrests generally last up to eight hours but may last up to 12 hours in exceptional cases. Police may hold persons under “detention for the purposes of public safety” for 24 hours. Persons who abscond from probation may be detained for up to 72 hours. Police, a prosecutor, or a judge may order detention of suspects for 72 hours if there is a well founded suspicion of an offense punishable by imprisonment. A pretrial detention motion must be filed with a court prior to the lapse of the 72-hour period. A defendant may appeal a pretrial detention order.
Police must inform suspects of the charges against them at the beginning of their first interrogation, which must occur within 24 hours of detention. Authorities generally respected this right.
There is a functioning bail system. Representation by defense counsel is mandatory in the investigative phase if suspects face a charge punishable by more than five years’ imprisonment; their personal liberty is already restricted; they are deaf, blind, unable to speak, or have a mental disability; they are unfamiliar with the Hungarian language or the language of the procedure; they are unable to defend themselves in person for any reason; they are juveniles; or they are indigent and request appointment of a defense counsel. The court, prosecution, or the investigating authority (police) may also order a defense counsel in certain cases. Since 2018 local bar chambers, rather than the authorities, assign legal counsel to defendants who lack legal representation.
Police must inform suspects of their right to counsel before questioning them. The law requires that police or the prosecutor suspend interrogation and wait for up to two hours for an attorney to arrive if the suspect invokes this right. Some attorneys reported the right to an effective defense was violated in several cases. For example, in some instances detainees and their defense counsels were required to meet where government security cameras could monitor them. If bar chamber-appointed attorneys refuse the case or do not respond within one hour of appointment, authorities assign the defense counsel. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee found that appointed attorneys frequently neglected their work, with only 16 percent attending their clients’ first court hearings, in contrast with 63 percent of retained attorneys. According to statistics cited in the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s report on the practice of assigning defense attorneys, authorities assigned at least a third of defendants’ attorneys. The law permits short-term detainees to notify relatives or others of their detention within eight hours unless the notification would jeopardize the investigation. Investigative authorities must notify relatives of a detainee’s short-term detention and its location within eight hours.
Pretrial Detention: An investigatory judge may order pretrial detention where there is a risk a detainee may flee, commit a new offense, or hinder an investigation. Cases involving pretrial detention take priority over other expedited hearings. A detainee may appeal pretrial detention.
When the criminal offense is punishable by life in prison, the law does not limit the duration of pretrial detention. The presence of defense counsel at hearings related to pretrial detention is not mandatory.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary. Some experts and legal scholars expressed concern over what they considered systemic threats to the country’s judicial independence.
Amnesty International asserted in an April report on the Hungarian judiciary that increasing political control undermined judicial independence. Amnesty International noted, as others have previously, that the politically appointed president of the National Office for the Judiciary (OBH) wields greater power and authority than the 14-member panel of peer-elected judges (OBT) that is charged with oversight of the OBH. Amnesty International characterized the imbalance of power between the two bodies as a threat to judicial independence because the OBH’s influence on the appointment of court leaders throughout the system enabled it to exert “tight control” over the lower courts, further hindering judicial independence. Judges interviewed for the report said “loyalty” was the main requirement for career advancement and administrative advantages in the judiciary.
In late 2019 the long-standing public dispute between then OBH president Tunde Hando and the OBT, which Amnesty International and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee characterized as a “constitutional crisis,” ended with Hando’s departure from the OBH for an appointment as a Constitutional Court judge. Alleging numerous procedural and legal violations as well as abuse of power, the OBT had unsuccessfully asked parliament to remove Hando from office in May 2019. Hando’s nominated successor, Judge Gyorgy Barna Senyei, received the OBT’s unanimous support in December 2019. The OBH and OBT have not feuded publicly since Senyei took office in December 2019. While observers viewed the absence of public conflict between the OBT and OBH since Hando’s departure as an improvement, Amnesty International asserted that the “systemic problems caused by the ineffective supervisory powers of the OBT and other weaknesses in the institutions of judicial self-governance will not be solved simply by a change of OBH president.”
In February the European Commission stated that “developments of checks and balances in the Hungarian courts system continued to raise concerns.” In September the European Commission stated in its first Rule of Law Report that the OBT faces challenges in counterbalancing the powers of the president of the OBH, but the appointment of a new president “may open the way for reinforced cooperation” between the two bodies. The report raised concerns over a decision of the Curia, the country’s supreme court, that declared a request for preliminary ruling to the European Court of Justice to be unlawful.
In January several senior government officials, including Prime Minister Orban and Minister of Justice Varga, criticized court rulings that awarded compensation to Romani families in a school segregation case and to prisoners for poor prison conditions. On January 17, Orban alleged that groups of lawyers profited, earning millions of forints from the state, through lawsuits over poor prison conditions by abusing the law. On February 28, Orban stated that a network of NGOs and lawyers that he claimed was linked to a prominent Hungarian-American businessman and philanthropist was responsible for this “prison business” (see sections 1, 5, and 6 for information on the Romani segregation and prisoner compensation cases). In a January 21 statement, Hungarian Bar Association chairman Janos Banati responded that the prime minister’s statements “undermine the rule of law in Hungary” and expressed his concerns over government attacks against independent courts and defense attorneys.
In December 2019 parliament adopted legislation (the Omnibus Bill) on judicial system reforms that granted state authorities the right to appeal legal decisions to the Constitutional Court if they allege a lower court decision violates their rights. Appealing to the Constitutional Court would enable the government to bypass the traditional route of appeal through the Curia, where appeals by the government would have previously ended. Domestic legal experts said they believed these reforms would allow the government to overturn unfavorable rulings via the Constitutional Court, in which all of the judges have been appointed by Fidesz-led governments and which has consistently ruled in favor of the government in politically sensitive cases over the previous five years. While the Curia was considered to be largely apolitical and staffed by professional judges, many Constitutional Court judges were viewed as more politically aligned legal scholars with limited prior judicial experience. A judge interviewed for the Amnesty International’s report in April asserted that the mere possibility that a judge’s decision could be appealed to the Constitutional Court might be sufficient for the judge to rule in the government’s favor. Another provision of the law requires judges to provide “additional judicial reasoning” if they depart from a previously published nonbinding Curia legal argument.
The European Commission’s September Rule of Law Report noted that the Omnibus Bill allows members of the Constitutional Court, who are elected by parliament, to be appointed as a judge to the Curia without undergoing the formal application and evaluation procedure (in which the peer-elected OBT approves the appointment). The report also noted that the Omnibus Bill lowered the eligibility criteria for the Curia president, allowing time served at the Constitutional Court or at an international court to be taken into account when calculating the “experience as a judge,” even though such an applicant may never have served as a judge in a courtroom. Following the change in the eligibility criteria, on October 5, President Janos Ader nominated Constitutional Court justice Andras Zsolt Varga–who has never served as a presiding judge–for the post of president of the Curia. On October 9, the OBT opposed Varga’s nomination, citing his lack of courtroom experience. On October 19, despite the OBT’s and opposition parties’ objections, parliament elected Varga as the new Curia president. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee stated that Varga’s election represented the “next stage in the government’s series of attacks against the judiciary,” as he was expected to be “a potential transmission belt of the executive within the judiciary.”
The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair public trial, and the judiciary generally enforced this right.
Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Suspects have the right to be informed promptly of the nature of charges against them and of the applicable legal regulations, with free interpretation as necessary. Trial proceedings are public, although a judge may minimize public attendance and may order closed hearings under certain conditions. Trials generally occurred without undue delay. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial.
The law stipulates that the investigating authority shall schedule the interrogation to enable defendants to exercise their right to a defense. A summons for a court hearing must be delivered at least five days prior to the hearing. Defendants have the right to free interpretation from the moment charged. Defendants may challenge or question witnesses and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. The law states that no one may be compelled to provide self-incriminating testimony or produce self-incriminating evidence. Defendants have the right of appeal.
Courts may not impose prison sentences on juveniles who were between the ages of 12 and 14 when they committed an offense but may order their placement in a juvenile correctional institute.
Some observers and legal experts asserted that the country’s system for assigning defense attorneys and the low compensation provided to those attorneys could hinder criminal defendants’ access to adequate legal representation, and consequently, a fair trial (see section 1.d.).
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
By law individuals or organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts. Individuals or organizations that have exhausted domestic legal remedies regarding violations of the European Convention on Human Rights allegedly committed by the state may appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for redress.
The government has laws and mechanisms in place, but there was little progress on the resolution of remaining Holocaust-era claims.
Communal property restitution in the country was completed in the 1990s based on a law that allowed religious organizations to claim previously owned properties that were confiscated after January 1946. Work on private property restitution process took place in the 1990s and was completed by 2001. Holocaust survivors from the country receive pension supplements. The 1947 Paris Peace Treaty regulates the restitution of heirless Jewish properties in the country. In 2007 the government pledged and subsequently distributed $21 million to assist Holocaust survivors in the country and survivors of Hungarian origin living abroad as an advance payment on an expected, subsequent agreement that would provide more comprehensive compensation for heirless property. The Jewish Heritage of Hungary Public Endowment, a domestic restitution foundation composed of local Hungarian Jews, government officials, and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), distributed one-third of the funds to survivors living in the country, while two-thirds were transferred to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany to fund social welfare services for survivors in need living outside the country.
In April 2019 the WJRO presented the government with its assessment of the government’s second set of research on heirless property. As of December the government had not yet agreed to WJRO’s requests for further discussions on a roadmap to begin negotiations.
For additional information regarding Holocaust-era property restitution and related issues, please see the Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and law prohibit such actions, and there were no reports the government failed to respect these prohibitions.
There is no requirement for the Counterterrorism Center (known by its Hungarian acronym TEK), or in certain cases the national intelligence services, to obtain prior judicial authorization for surveillance in national security cases that involve terrorism. In such cases the justice minister may permit covert intelligence action for 90 days, with a possibility of extension. Such intelligence collection may involve secret house searches, surveillance with recording devices, opening of letters and parcels, and checking and recording electronic or computerized communications without the consent of the persons under investigation. A decision to approve a covert intelligence action is not subject to appeal.
The country’s criminal procedure code establishes a regime for covert policing and intelligence gathering. The law gives prosecutors unrestricted access to information obtained through covert investigations.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet and generally did not censor online content. There were no substantiated reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
In cooperation with internet service providers, the NMHH maintained a nonpublic database to store and cooperate in the implementation of court rulings and tax authority resolutions to block websites that violate the law, including content-related legislation.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
In 2017 an amendment to the higher education law required universities from non-EU countries to have a physical presence in their country of origin, operate under an intergovernmental agreement between Hungary and the country of accreditation, and ensure that the university’s name in Hungarian reflects an exact translation of the name in the country of origin. The U.S.-accredited Central European University (CEU) established a presence at Bard College in New York in 2018, and the government and the State of New York negotiated an intergovernmental agreement. The government argued, however, that CEU had not sufficiently complied with the provisions of the law and declined to sign the draft agreement to bring CEU into compliance with the law. In 2018 CEU announced it would move its U.S.-accredited programs to Vienna and did so in 2019. In July 2019 CEU was accredited as an Austrian private university under the name of Central European University, and in November 2019 it officially opened its campus in Vienna. The European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Hungary over the matter in 2017. The Constitutional Court suspended the case until the European Court of Justice (ECJ) makes its decision.
The ECJ ruled on October 6 that the amendment violated EU law and contradicted the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights relating to academic freedom. The ECJ also found the law violated the international General Agreement on Trade in Services and World Trade Organization regulations. The ruling stated that the condition of an international treaty between Hungary and the third country constituted a “means of arbitrary discrimination because of the decisive nature of the political will of the Hungarian authorities.” The CEU rector, Michael Ignatieff, described the ruling as a legal and moral vindication but underscored that CEU’s move to Vienna was final, adding that the ruling “lifts the whole burden of Lex CEU off our backs and restores our freedom.”
In 2019 parliament passed a law that gave the government control, through a newly established organization, over the funding of 15 research institutes previously funded and managed by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The law received domestic and international criticism as infringing upon the principles of academic freedom and the self-governance of scientific institutions. In July the research institutes received a one-day deadline to submit their “research plan descriptions,” which renewed concerns over the evaluation process of research funding.
Under legislation passed by parliament on May 19, the government assigned private foundations the right to operate six public universities starting August 1. Following the model introduced at Corvinus University in 2019, the Veterinary University, the University of Miskolc, the Moholy-Nagy University of Arts, Neumann Janos University, the University of Sopron, and Szechenyi Istvan University began operating under new structures financed by foundations and in some cases with government officials as members of the board.
On July 3, parliament adopted a law that transferred the ownership of the University of Theater and Film Arts to a foundation as of September 1. The government disregarded the university’s proposal on the composition of the foundation board, instead appointing National Theater director Attila Vidnyanszky as the head of the foundation. The university senate asserted that Vidnyanszky “consistently and deliberately sought to destroy the reputation of the university for years, while the other members of the board have no significant experience in higher education.” Several instructors announced their resignations following the announcement. The university’s students, staff, artists and the public held several demonstrations against the law, and students barricaded themselves inside university buildings, demanding university autonomy. Students ended the blockade due to the government announcement of a ban on assemblies on November 10 as part of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In an exceptional procedure on March 24 during the COVID-19 pandemic, parliament passed an amendment to the act on culture that removed state-funded Budapest theaters from the control of the municipal government and placed them under central government control. The central government also gained the right to appoint theater leadership. Referring to an allegation of sexual harassment at a Budapest theater at the end of 2019, the government argued that if it provided all funds for the operation of the theaters then it should also be entitled to make personnel and financial decisions, adding that it could no longer support the operation of theaters that did not allow inspection into their affairs. The cabinet introduced the amendment without any professional consultations. In April the central government and the municipality of Budapest concluded an agreement on the operation of Budapest theaters. Under the agreement the municipality of Budapest will finance four theaters without government funding, with the right to decide on the appointment of their directors.
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right, with some exceptions.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution includes a provision on the protection of privacy, which stipulates that freedom of expression and the exercise of the right to assembly shall not harm others’ private and family life and their homes, potentially restricting protests in public spaces near politicians’ homes and protests in other public spaces that have apartments nearby. The law also permits the government to regulate public demonstrations, including holding organizers liable for damages caused by their events, and to ban protests in advance. Under the law authorities may ban or dissolve gatherings that unnecessarily and disproportionately harm the dignity of the nation or other national, ethnic, or religious communities. The law also criminalizes the nonviolent disturbance or impediment of a demonstration.
The criminal code provides that harassment of “official persons” (including members of parliament, judges, and prosecutors) when they are not performing public duties is a crime punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.
During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government introduced restrictions on indoor and outdoor public gatherings and events. In May police fined drivers who participated in a protest against the government’s decision to release patients from hospitals due to COVID-19 by honking their car horns. Police considered the May 28 protest of far-right groups against “Gypsy crime” as falling outside the scope of the law on assembly (see also section 6 on ethnic minorities). During the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government put a blanket ban on assemblies in public spaces and imposed fines for violations of up to 500,000 forints ($1,670) for participants of banned protests.
On May 26, the ECHR ruled that police interfered with a private individual’s right to peaceful assembly by unjustifiably dismissing his notification of intent to hold a demonstration in front of the president’s residence in 2013. Police argued that TEK had closed the area in question, rendering it no longer a public space available for demonstrations for the requested period. Subsequent court scrutiny removed the legal basis of the ban but only at a time when the reason for the demonstration had already become obsolete. The ECHR ordered the state to pay the private individual 2,600 euros ($3,100) as compensation for nonpecuniary damage.
Freedom of Association
On June 18, the ECJ ruled that the country’s 2017 law requiring NGOs that receive foreign funding to register and label themselves as “foreign-funded organizations” violated EU law (see section 5).
A 2011 law on religion deregistered more than 300 religious groups and organizations that had previously held incorporated church status; most were required to reapply for registration. The government had not approved any applications for incorporated church status since it amended the law in 2012, but it approved many applications for a lesser status of religious organizations. In 2019 an amendment to the law entered into force creating four different statuses for religious organizations. Observers noted that while the amendment provides a simpler procedure for religious entities to gain an intermediate-level status, it only restores some of the rights those religious groups could exercise before 2011.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government cooperated with and provided the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to refugees and asylum seekers, with the exception of those held in detention under the aliens policing procedure.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Human rights advocates and UNHCR criticized the government’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, including its pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers to the Serbian side of the Serbia-Hungary border fence, even if they had not entered Hungary through Serbia.
Domestic human rights NGOs reported that their attorneys had difficulties in maintaining contact with foreigners kept in aliens-policing or asylum-detention facilities.
Refoulement: The CPT report published in March noted there were no legal remedies offering effective protection against forced removal or refoulement, including chain refoulement. Human rights advocates reported that 11,101 pushbacks to Serbia took place in 2019, according to official police statistics.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for asylum and establishes a procedure for asylum seekers outside the country to apply for it, but UNHCR stated on June 29 that the new law (see below) “further undermines the effective access to territory and asylum for those fleeing wars and persecution which had been already seriously constrained before.” UNHCR called on the government to bring its asylum system into conformity with international refugee and human rights law.
Following the ECJ’s May 14 ruling that classified the government’s holding of asylum seekers in two transit zones on the Hungary-Serbia border as unlawful detention, the government announced on May 21 the closure of the transit zones and introduced a new asylum system in a government decree as of May 27. Based on the new legislation, asylum seekers arriving at Hungary’s border were subsequently turned away and directed to submit a statement of intent to request asylum at the Hungarian embassies in Belgrade or Kyiv. The asylum authority had 60 days to examine the statement of intent and make a proposal to the embassy whether to issue the asylum seeker a special single-entry travel permit to enter Hungary. In case the permit is issued, the asylum seeker travels on their own to Hungary within 30 days and, upon arrival, immediately avail themselves to the border guards who present them to the asylum authority within 24 hours. Those not granted the special one-time entry permit at one of the embassies cannot request asylum in Hungary. The decree was later included as part of the bill ending the state of emergency that entered into force on June 18. On June 29, UNHCR expressed concern that the law exposes asylum seekers to the risk of refoulement. All third-country nationals found anywhere in the country without already having a right to stay (e.g., a valid visa or residence permit) are “escorted” to the other side of the border fence. As of November the asylum authority had not approved any submitted statements of intent.
On October 30, the European Commission opened an infringement procedure due to the new asylum rules, which it considers to be unlawful as they preclude persons who are in the country’s territory, including at the border, from applying for international protection.
On December 17, the ECJ ruled that restricting access to the international protection procedure, detaining asylum applicants for that protection procedure in transit zones, and moving third-country nationals who were illegally present to the Hungary-Serbia border area without observing the safeguards in a return procedure were in breach of EU law.
On June 21, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee reported that between 2017 and the closure of the transit zones in May, thousands of adults and children were detained unlawfully for extensive periods of time, up to almost two years. Authorities deprived 34 individuals of food in 24 cases for one to eight days. In each case the Hungarian Helsinki Committee had to request interim measures from the ECHR to stop the deprivation of food.
On March 1, Prime Minister Orban’s domestic security adviser Gyorgy Bakondi announced the indefinite suspension of the admission of new asylum seekers due to COVID-19. On March 8, the government extended the “crisis situation due to mass migration”–first introduced in 2015 and renewed since every six months–until September 7 due to COVID-19 and the security risk posed by the situation at the border between Turkey and Greece. On September 1, the government extended the “crisis situation” for a further six months. On August 6, Surgeon General Cecilia Muller stated that uncontrolled migration posed an “extreme danger” to the country because most “illegal migrants” came from countries with a high number of COVID-19 cases and may be infected with other diseases no longer common in the country.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The government maintained lists of “safe countries of origin” and “safe third countries.” Both lists included Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. UNHCR repeatedly objected to the government’s designation of Serbia as a safe third country on the grounds that it does not have effective asylum procedures. In 2018 parliament modified the constitution to state that persons arriving in the country “through a country where he or she was not exposed to persecution or a direct risk of persecution should not be entitled to asylum.” Parliament also amended the asylum law and restricted the right to asylum to only those persons who arrived in Hungary directly from a place where their life or freedom were at risk.
On March 19, the ECJ ruled that national legislation, which stipulated that an asylum application by an asylum seeker arriving in an EU member state through a safe transit country was inadmissible, breached EU law. The court ruled that EU member states were obliged to assess the asylum seekers’ “connection” to the transit country when determining the admissibility of their application; merely transiting through the country was not sufficient to provide the basis of such connection. The case concerned a Syrian Kurd’s asylum application that the immigration authority deemed inadmissible because the applicant had transited Serbia, which the government considers a safe transit country.
Freedom of Movement: Following the closure of the transit zones, the new asylum provisions prescribe the automatic “placement of the applicant in a closed facility” for four weeks following the registration of their asylum request, without any available remedy to challenge the placement. After four weeks the applicant can either be placed in an open facility or in detention, with a legal remedy available against that detention decision. The law permits the detention of rejected asylum seekers under an aliens policing procedure for a maximum of 12 months, or for six months under asylum detention in certain cases of pending asylum applications. Immigration detention generally took place in immigration detention centers.
In May authorities expelled 15 Iranian students who had allegedly broken COVID-19 quarantine restrictions while being examined at a Budapest hospital. The expulsions came after national political leaders claimed that foreigners, particularly Iranians, were spreading the disease. On July 15, media reported that the decisions were under review.
Access to Basic Services: The National Directorate-General for Aliens Policing (asylum authority) has 60 days to make a proposal to the Hungarian embassy in Belgrade or Kyiv on whether to grant an asylum seeker a one-time entry permit. During this time the asylum seeker is not entitled to accommodation or any support services and does not enjoy any protection.
Human rights advocates reported that, from the closure of transit zones at the end of May until the end of August, no formal education was provided in either the Vamosszabadi or Balassagyarmat refugee reception centers on the Hungary-Slovakia border, where the government moved nearly all of the asylum seekers previously kept in the transit zones. In Balassagyarmat social workers were present in adequate numbers, but psychosocial assistance was not available on a regular basis on site, while a psychologist was contacted on demand. A similar situation was reported in Vamosszabadi.
The law limits benefits and assistance to persons given international protection on the grounds they should not have more advantages than citizens. Authorities do not provide housing allowances, educational allowances, or monthly cash allowances to asylum seekers, refugees, or beneficiaries of subsidiary protection.
In 2019 the European Commission referred Hungary to the ECJ, stating the legislation that criminalizes providing assistance to asylum seekers who were not subject to persecution in their home country or who had already transited a safe country curtailed the asylum seekers’ right to communicate with and be assisted by national, international, and nongovernmental organizations. The case remained pending as of November.
Durable Solutions: Refugees are allowed to naturalize, but according to civil society organizations, the applications of refugees and stateless persons were approved at a lower rate than those of other naturalization seekers. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee criticized the procedural framework for naturalization, noting decisions were not explained to applicants and no appeal of rejections were allowed. There were no reported cases of onward refugee resettlement from the country to other states.
Temporary Protection: The law provides for a specific temporary protection status for situations of mass influx, but organizations working on the problem reported that it was not used in practice. Under the law all forms of international protection (refugee status, subsidiary protection, tolerated stay, stateless status, etc.) are temporary by nature, with periodic review of the entitlement to protection.
In 2019 the ECJ ruled that judges may grant international protection status to asylum seekers if an administrative body has overruled their decision without establishing new elements in the case. A 2015 regulation had stripped the courts of the right to overrule immigration authorities on asylum applications.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: National elections were held in 2018 under a single-round national system to elect 199 members of parliament. The elections resulted in the ruling parties gaining a third consecutive two-thirds supermajority in parliament, receiving 49 percent of party-list votes while winning 91 of the country’s 106 single-member districts, decided by a first-past-the-post system.
Nationwide municipal elections were held in October 2019 under a single-round national system to elect local council representatives, mayors, and ethnic minority self-government members. With 48.6 percent turnout, the elections resulted in governing Fidesz-Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) candidates retaining the majority of mayoral positions in smaller towns and villages, and the opposition capturing the mayoral seats of Budapest, 14 of the capital’s 23 districts, and 11 of the country’s 23 county seats. Observers suggested the relative success of the opposition resulted from the nomination of a single opposition candidate running against Fidesz-KDNP in most key races. Domestic observers noted the lack of changes to the electoral and media environment and referenced the findings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission deployed to the country in 2018 (see below).
A mission representing the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) observed the 2018 national elections. In its final report on the elections, the mission characterized the election as “at odds with OSCE commitments” and concluded that a “pervasive overlap between state and ruling-party resources” undermined contestants’ ability “to compete on an equal basis.”
The ODIHR election observation mission report highlighted that despite the “large number of contestants, most did not actively campaign, ostensibly registering to benefit from public campaign-finance entitlements or to dilute the vote in tightly contested races.” The report called attention to the lack of a “periodic review of constituency boundaries in a transparent, impartial, and inclusive manner by an independent body.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, stipulations of the COVID-19 state of emergency law enacted by parliament included a ban on holding by-elections during the crisis. Upon termination of the state of emergency, the National Election Office announced that 20 local by-elections had been postponed during the period of the pandemic; all 20 were subsequently scheduled on later dates.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The ODIHR report on the 2018 elections noted several problems with media influence that “undermined the level playing field for campaigning and raised questions with regard to the abuse of administrative resources and the blurring of the line between state governing and party campaigning, which is at odds with OSCE commitments.” The report also noted campaign finance laws limited the transparency and accountability of political parties.
Citizens living abroad but having permanent residency in the country were required to appear in person at embassies or consulates to vote, while citizens without Hungarian residency could vote by mail, but only for party lists. ODIHR election observers noted that the practice of applying different procedures to register and vote depending on whether or not a person had a permanent address in the country “challenged the principle of equal suffrage.”
On December 15, parliament modified the electoral law, stipulating that any party wishing to put forward a national party list must nominate candidates in at least 71 (up from the previous 27) of the 106 individual parliamentary constituencies.
Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the government introduced a state of emergency by government decree on March 11. Under the state of emergency, the government is entitled to issue emergency government decrees which, in line with the constitution, expire after 15 days. On March 30, parliament passed a bill to extend the scope of the emergency decrees indefinitely, authorizing the government to govern by emergency decrees without parliamentary approval.
The bill generated domestic and international criticism for its expansion of the government’s powers without a specified end date and for permanently changing the criminal code in a manner that observers claimed could restrict the free press (see also section 2.a., Freedom of Expression). On March 27, the OHCHR stated that the “bill appears to give the government practically unlimited powers to rule by decree and bypass parliamentary scrutiny with no clear cut-off date.” The OHCHR stressed that “under international human rights law, emergency legislation and measures should be strictly temporary.” On March 30, ODIHR director Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir expressed concerns about the bill and added, “emergency legislation being adopted by governments across the OSCE region must include a time limit and guarantee parliamentary oversight.” On March 30, the European Commission stated that it was not preventing anyone from doing their job, but would vigilantly ensure that European norms are respected in all policy areas while combating COVID-19. On June 16, parliament passed a bill compelling the government to lift the state of emergency, effective June 17.
Observers noted that many of the decrees and legislation enacted during the state of emergency, including imposing prison time for “scaremongering” under a special legal order and measures critics said were unrelated to the pandemic, remained on the books after the state of emergency was lifted. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and Amnesty International Hungary called the termination of the state of emergency an “optical illusion,” asserting that an omnibus bill passed concurrently contained provisions that allow the government to once again rule by decree for an indefinite period of time.
Under the state of emergency in April, the government issued a decree that classified the area of the city of God, which is led by opposition parties and home to a Samsung factory, as “strategically important” and a “priority economic zone,” thus transferring jurisdiction of that zone, including tax collection, from the municipality to the Fidesz-led county government. In May parliament passed a similar bill that allowed the government to declare any site hosting investment projects worth more than approximately five billion forints ($16 million) as a “special economic zone.” Critics noted that this provision was unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic and seemed designed to target municipalities controlled by opposition parties, stripping them of tax revenue.
Following the increase of COVID-19 cases during the fall, the government reintroduced a state of emergency on November 4. On November 10, parliament passed a bill to extend the government’s state of emergency powers for an additional 90 days. Also on November 10, the government introduced approximately 30 bills to parliament, including constitutional amendments and other legislative actions on far-ranging issues such as LGBTI rights (see section 6), fiscal transparency (see section 4), judicial independence, and electoral law. On November 20, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, called on parliament to postpone a vote on the measures, scheduled for December, because they could have “serious adverse effects on human rights in the country” if enacted, and because the state of emergency restricts “opportunities for meaningful democratic discussion and public scrutiny.” Parliament passed the bills on December 15.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process. Representation of women in public life, however, was very low. The ODIHR report on the 2018 elections noted, “Women are underrepresented in political life and there are no legal requirements to promote gender equality in elections.” Following the elections, women constituted 12.5 percent of members of parliament. As of November the 15-member cabinet included three women, and 13 percent of subcabinet-level government state secretaries were women, a figure that has remained relatively constant across Fidesz-KDNP administrations since 2010. The UN Human Rights Committee’s Sixth Periodic Report expressed concern that women were underrepresented in decision-making positions in the public sector, particularly in government ministries and parliament.
The electoral system provides 13 recognized national minorities the possibility of registering for a separate minority voting process in parliamentary elections, by which they vote on the minority candidate list instead of the party list. While all 13 national minorities registered candidate lists in the 2018 elections, only one–the German minority–obtained enough votes to win a minority seat in parliament. National minorities that did not win a seat were represented in parliament by nonvoting spokespersons whose competence was limited to discussing minority issues. Regarding the 2018 election campaign, the ODIHR stated it was informed of several instances where pressure was put on Romani voters not to register as minority voters and instead to vote for national lists. Due to privacy laws regarding ethnic data, no official statistics were available on the number of members of a minority who were in parliament or the cabinet.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
While the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by public officials, few such cases were lodged or prosecuted during the year. The European Commission and NGOs contended that the government did not implement or apply these laws effectively and that officials and those with close government connections often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
Anticorruption NGOs alleged government corruption and favoritism in the distribution of EU funds. The Corruption Research Center Budapest identified several cases of bid rigging and other corruption risk indicators in public tenders with EU funding. The research center concluded that companies with close links to the government faced significantly less competition and were able to obtain higher prices when bidding for EU-funded projects.
In its September 30 Rule of Law Report, the European Commission found deficiencies in the country’s anticorruption policies and that the government did not sufficiently address nepotism and favoritism, noting specifically that, “when serious allegations arise, there is a systematic lack of determined action to investigate and prosecute corruption cases involving high-level officials or their immediate circle.” The report also noted, “tight interconnections between politics and certain national businesses are conducive to corruption.”
On December 15, parliament modified the constitution by introducing a new definition of public funds that limited them to “income, expenditures, and claims of the state.” Another amendment declared that the creation and operation of so-called asset management foundations–such as the ones that granted the government ownership of several universities, including the University of Theater and Film Arts (see section 2, Academic Freedom)–were governed by cardinal law requiring a two-thirds majority to change. Transparency watchdogs and opposition parties criticized both amendments, warning that under the new definition of public funds the government would not be compelled to release data on the operation of state-owned enterprises and public funds in response to freedom of information requests, shielding the government from public scrutiny.
In February the European Commission’s European Semester Report on the country stated that corruption remained an important concern. Although the commission noted minimal improvement during the previous year, it stated that further steps were necessary to strengthen transparency and competition in public procurement. The report also called for the Prosecutor General’s Office to pursue corruption cases more effectively and determined that “systemic action by Hungarian authorities to prosecute high-level corruption was lacking.” “The weakening of checks and balances, weak accountability and obstacles to access to public information hinder the fight against corruption,” the report concluded.
Corruption: In its 2019 annual report released on September 10, the European antifraud office OLAF found 43 cases of potential fraud in the country associated with EU development funds received between 2015 and 2019. OLAF recommended that the government repay 3.93 percent of the funds it received during the 2015-19 period. Observers noted that OLAF’s limited resources allowed it to review only a fraction of the tens thousands of EU cases in which EU funds were disbursed to member states.
On January 14, a criminal case against ruling Fidesz party member of parliament Gyorgy Simonka was launched in the Budapest Court of Justice. In August 2019 prosecutors charged Simonka and 32 associates of running a criminal organization that fraudulently obtained 1.4 billion forints ($4.6 million) in EU and state funds through a complex web of companies. Simonka was also accused of both paying and accepting bribes, reportedly paying 20 million forints ($67,000) in bribes to stop Tax Office investigations at his companies. According to the charges, two companies linked to him undertook overpriced EU and state-funded projects with Simonka’s help and transferred kickbacks in cash and other forms through intermediaries to the politician. Prosecutors were reportedly seeking an eight-and-a-half-year prison sentence for Simonka and the confiscation of his assets in the value of 850 million forints ($2.8 million).
Financial Disclosure: The law requires members of parliament, senior government officials, the president of the Supreme Court and his deputies, and the prosecutor general to publish asset declarations on a regular basis. NGOs claimed that public officials circumvented the required disclosures by placing assets in the names of spouses, who are not required to file asset declarations. The vast majority of public-sector employees, including law enforcement and army officers, judges, prosecutors, civil servants, and public servants, were also obliged to submit asset declarations, which are not publicly accessible. NGOs noted there were no criminal or administrative sanctions for submitting inaccurate asset declarations and asserted there was no effective method to detect violators. The European Commission’s Rule of Law Report noted a lack of transparency in political party financing, asset disclosure, and lobbying.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Domestic and international human rights groups operated with some government restrictions affecting their funding. Government officials were generally uncooperative and unresponsive to their views.
On June 18, the ECJ ruled that the country’s 2017 law requiring NGOs that receive foreign funding to register and label themselves as “foreign-funded organizations” violated EU law. The ECJ declared that the legislation unduly restricted free movement of capital and interfered with fundamental rights, including protection of personal data and freedom of association, respect for private life, as well as citizens’ right to participate in public life. Reacting to the ECJ ruling, an umbrella organization for the affected NGOs, the Civilization Coalition, wrote, “The decision is particularly important for all of Hungarian society, because the government has for years been trying to undermine NGOs working for the common good.” Justice Minister Judit Varga stated the government was committed to ensuring the transparency of NGOs. Despite the ruling, in September a government-established public foundation rejected an EU grant application from a human rights NGO over alleged noncompliance with the law. The law had not been repealed as of November.
At the beginning of the year, several government officials and progovernment media alleged that NGOs and their attorneys were profiting from “prison business” when, representing inmates, they sued the state for compensation due to poor prison conditions (also see section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions). Speaking about the Gyongyospata school segregation lawsuit (see section 6, Members of Minority Groups) and referring to human rights groups as “Soros organizations,” the officials also claimed such NGOs should not be able in future to “use Roma families as a tool to launch fundraising campaigns, disturb social peace, and reward those who do not go to school.”
On December 21, Norway’s Foreign Ministry announced the signing of an agreement with Hungary on the disbursement framework for 214.6 million euros ($262 million) in grants from the Norwegian government to support NGOs, climate protection projects, renewable energy, and other development projects. The government initially insisted on determining which NGOs would receive money designated for civil society but reached a compromise whereby a company acceptable to both parties would be chosen to determine the allocation of grant funds to NGOs. Norway stressed that the company’s independence from governmental influence remained a precondition to the agreement. Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein suspended payment to Hungary in 2014 after the government insisted on playing a bigger role in disbursing funds to NGOs in the country, and the government’s audit office raided the offices of one of the NGOs responsible for managing the grants, in what civil society organizations described as a politically motivated investigation that did not result in any charges.
In October, NGOs reported that authorities had closed the investigation into the October 2019 attack on the Aurora NGO center, during which approximately 50 members from the neo-Nazi Legio Hungaria group vandalized the center and burned the pride flag that was hanging outside, without filing any charges (see section 6).
On November 17, the Budapest Capital Regional Court ruled that police had failed in their duty when they did not take immediate action against a group of far-right extremists who had forced their way into an LGBTI event at the Aurora Center in September 2019, chanting homophobic slurs and physically harassing the event participants for three hours, forcing organizers to cancel it (see section 6).
In November 2019 Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released statements regarding a media report that the state media conglomerate MTVA banned its staff from covering human rights organizations’ reports, which they described as an attempt to undermine media freedom and further restrict NGOs’ work in the country.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitution and law establish a unified system for the office of the commissioner for fundamental rights (ombudsperson). The ombudperson has two deputies, one responsible for the rights of national minorities and one for the interests of “future generations” (environmental protection). The ombudsperson is nominated by the president and elected by a two-thirds majority of parliament. The ombudsperson is solely accountable to parliament and has the authority to initiate proceedings to defend the rights of citizens from abuse by authorities and entities providing public services. The constitution provides that the ombudsperson may request that the Constitutional Court review laws. The ombudsperson is also responsible for collecting electronically submitted reports of public benefit, e.g., whistleblower reports on public corruption, and operates the national preventive mechanism against torture. Ombudsperson recommendations are not binding. During the international re-accreditation process of the ombudsperson’s office as a “national human rights institution,” the October 2019 report by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) noted that the office “did not demonstrate adequate efforts in all human rights issues, nor has it spoken out in a manner that promoted and protected all human rights.” During the year GANHRI decided to defer the review of the ombudsperson’s office for one year. On December 1, parliament voted to transfer the mandate and tasks of the Equal Treatment Authority to the ombudsperson as of January 1, 2021 (see section 6).