Will coronavirus kill free press in Hungary? Journalists fear a new law aimed at fighting fake news will result in them being thrown in jail.
“This is something they can use to call the police on me. I don’t feel it’s the freedom of speech I should have,” says to me an established Hungarian journalist with 20 years’ experience in radio, print and online. He requested anonymity, fearing retribution.
Hungary’s parliament has passed a new bill last week that includes a jail term of up to five years for spreading misinformation that hinders the government response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Coronavirus should not be a pretext
In Hungary, 78% of the media are pro-government according to a study. And independent journalists covering the coronavirus crisis have seen free press attacked.
The new bill is therefore bad news for media outlets who don’t want to disseminate government propaganda.
“Suppose my sources in hospitals tell me that they lack equipment and material. And the government side says that it’s not true, that this is spreading false information. Can they imprisoned me for that?” asks the journalist I spoke to.
The new law also allows Viktor Orbán to govern by decree. Amnesty International has been critical, fearing the government will restrict human rights.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also expressed concerns. “This crisis should not be used as a pretext to further curtail press freedom in Hungary,” said in a statement CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Gulnoza Said.
Journalists’ critics dismissed
In a state publication, Orbán’s spokesman Zoltán Kovács has dismissed the criticism. He considers the law “like the sanction against falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded movie theatre.”
For now, the current state of emergency has no clear time limit.
“They can keep on doing that for as long as they want,” observes the journalist I spoke to.
He feels people critics of the government are apathetic. He is often hearing them say “We will wait until they go away.” “That’s a very Hungarian thing to say,” he adds.