The law could be a strategic tool of the government to deviate the focus of the conversation away from an uncomfortable topic – anything related to the coronavirus, such as unemployment or healthcare – rather than a new way to gain power, which Viktor Orbán already held anyway, expert says.
European, United Nations, and many other rights groups widely condemned the emergency legislation passed by the Hungarian parliament on March 30th.
The law allows the prime minister to rule by decree, with no fixed time limit and includes measures to punish anyone seen spreading disinformation about the pandemic with up to five years in jail.
Many newspapers’ headings heavily accused Orbán of sweeping powers in the attempt to transform his regime, an illiberal democracy, to a complete dictatorship.
Most articles connected the new emergency law with an additional decline of press freedom in Hungary, which had dropped from 23rd to 89th position in the press freedom ranking since Orbán’s Fidesz party came to power in 2010.
Two Hungarian independent journalists, however, said that nothing changed in the way they are used to report on stories, except for fact-checking every detail at least seven times instead of five times, to ensure absolute accuracy in published information.
Gergo Sáling, whose story even made it to the New York Times, was fired in 2014 from his position as Editor-in-chief for Origo, a major news portal in Hungary, after allowing the publication of an uncomfortable investigative story into the foreign travel expenses of minister Janos Lazar, Mr. Orbán’s right-hand man.
Sáling, then, founded Direkt36, a non-profit investigative journalism centre in Hungary “with the mission to expose wrongdoings and abuse of power through fair but tough reporting.”
Sáling thinks many journalists are reacting rather “hysterically” to the law, and that journalists focusing mainly on the emergency law are serving exactly the sophisticated and opportunistic political strategy of the Hungarian government.
Let’s hear what he has to say.
As Sáling suggests, perhaps the law served as a way to deviate the topic of the conversation away from uncomfortable topics, such as the emergence of mass unemployment and the inefficiency of the healthcare system.
A video documenting the prime minister visiting a hospital was published on Orbán’s official social media accounts and circulated heavily online in the first week of April.
In the background, missing titles, a broken elevator, extinguisher on the floor, and the doctor guiding Orbán on the tour is wearing a simple surgical mask whereas the prime minister wears an N95 mask.
When asked to comment on the authenticity of the video, which many people thought was staged, Sáling said:
“I am not sure whether the video is true or orchestrated, but I am sure that it portrays a true image of how bad hospitals are here. You cannot expect the same standards of other countries when you look at the Hungarian healthcare system.”
But another devastating effect of the virus in Hungary might be the emergency of mass employment. As Gergely Gulyás, head of the Prime Minister’s office put it, “How many hundreds of thousands will that be?”
According to newly released figures by the Hungarian government, since March 11th, when the emergency situation was announced, unemployment grew by 51,000.
One of the reasons for this is the return of Hungarian job seekers coming back from abroad altogether.
In an opinion post on his blog, Mr. Zsombor Essosy, CEO at MAPI Hungarian Development Agency Corp., predicts that the number of the unemployed could reach 1 million in Hungary within a few months.
Viktória Serdült works at the political desk at Hvg, one of the main independent print and online newspapers in Hungary.
She thinks that Hungarian journalists have been facing the same challenges for years.
The pandemic just made them worse.
In addition, some inaccuracies in the coverage of the law gave an opportunity to the Hungarian government to attack international media.
Indeed, Christiane Amanpour was live on April 9th with Hungarian Foreign Minister Mr. Szijjarto, when he corrected her,
“But now you have been engaged in spreading another fake news about Hungary, sorry to say, because you just said that the Parliament is blocked in Hungary, which is not true. The Parliament is in session.”
In the interview, the Hungarian Foreign Minister accused the EU of double-standards, mentioning other EU countries that have enacted similar laws due to the pandemic, Poland, Malta and Croatia.
Belgium government was also granted emergency powers to create new laws without parliament’s approval.
But, unlike Hungary, the law involves a review period every three months over six months.
While most international media continue to focus on the rule of law, more pressing issues such as unemployment and healthcare in Hungary go unnoticed.
What if the emergency law was nothing more than another opportunistic move of the government to deviate the conversation away from the uncomfortable issues raised by the coronavirus outbreak?