Hungary's Government Using Pandemic Emergency Powers To Silence Critics

from the how-convenient dept

Every emergency brings with it the temptation for governments to grant themselves extra powers while they deal with the current crisis. When the coronavirus made its way into Hungary, it was too much for the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, to resist.

Hungary’s parliament has passed a new set of coronavirus measures that includes jail terms for spreading misinformation and gives no clear time limit to a state of emergency that allows the nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to rule by decree.

[...]

The bill introduces jail terms of up to five years for intentionally spreading misinformation that hinders the government response to the pandemic, leading to fears that it could be used to censor or self-censor criticism of the government response.

There is no effective expiration date for Orban's new "rule by decree" powers. And it's the new quasi-fake news laws that are being used to target critics of the government. Say something derogatory about the government and you should probably expect a visit from the police.

A 64-year-old man was detained by police Tuesday morning at his home near Szerencs, in Borsod county, and taken into custody on suspicion of fearmongering. He was interrogated in connection with a post he made on Facebook on April 28 which, according to police, alleged that the country’s leadership had deliberately timed the lifting of curfew restrictions to coincide with the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, which the man suggested could lead to mass infections.

The man's post did not meet the legal requirements for this charge, hence his release a couple of hours later. His post was addressed to "our dear dictator, our dear leader" and suggested relaxing curfew restrictions would result in a higher death rate. His post closed with him calling Orban a "cruel tyrant," but nothing about the post could be construed to "inhibit" the government's ability to contain the spread of the virus. It's almost impossible for opinions to be "deliberate falsehoods" or "distorted facts" since opinions are not facts, false or otherwise.

This 64-year-old man may have been one of the first to be targeted by this new emergency power, but he's far from the only one.

Hungary’s police said Wednesday they had opened 87 investigations over "scaremongering" since the emergency law took effect. And while some investigations appear to have targeted online posts promoting false facts, others have focused on citizens criticizing the Viktor Orbán government.

One "investigation" detailed in the Politico article involved an opposition activist who was similarly treated to an early morning visit from police over a social media post. Again, no formal charges were brought, but the message was sent all the same. The activist notes that it's not just cops crawling web pages in search of people to prosecute. It's also pro-government citizens who have turned themselves into an ad hoc snitch army to send cops to hassle critics.

Andras Kusinszki, the man taken from his home for calling Orban a dictator, told InsightHungary that the arrest had the intended effect: he will be posting fewer comments critical of Orban. Whether that was the law's intent when it was hastily crafted doesn't matter. That's how it's being used. And that makes the government's defense of its actions particularly nonsensical.

Asked in a virtual press conference Thursday about the two recent cases, Orbán’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyás said the fact that some individuals were released after a few hours “shows the strength of the rule of law.”

No, it doesn't. It shows the government will use a show of force to silence critics, even if it's not willing to go as far as to engage in doomed-to-fail prosecutions. Getting someone out of bed, dumping them into a police car, and taking them in for questioning still sends a message. The message becomes even louder when it's clear to everyone involved the supposedly criminal posts do not come anywhere close to violating these new laws.

Filed Under: censorship, covid-19, emergency powers, fake news, free speech, hungary, misinformation, pandemic, viktor orban


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  • icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 18 May 2020 @ 1:08pm

    What's that Book called?

    Every emergency brings with it the temptation for governments to grant themselves extra powers while they deal with the current crisis.

    Naomi Klein has called this The Shock Doctrine.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Samuel Abram (profile), 18 May 2020 @ 1:09pm

      bad link

      Sorry, bad link, you should go over here instead.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 18 May 2020 @ 1:55pm

        Re: Powell's: for all your 'unplugged' reading needs.

        Thank you for the link to Powell's books anyway.

        Their storefronts are closed, but their online store is open. There's that much at least.

        'They' said they weren't going to close essential businesses for the emergency. I think they need to check their priorities.

        (ps: no, not a shill. Just a fan.)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 19 May 2020 @ 12:16am

      Re: What's that Book called?

      Haven't read the book but I doubt this is what is happening - there is very little neo-liberalism going on in Hungary which is better described by reading Mussolini.

      Viktor Orban is riding a wave of ultraconservative extremist nationalism, and Hungary is currently a democracy in name only.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 18 May 2020 @ 1:12pm

    'Global pandemic eh? Sounds... useful.'

    Disaster really does help to show the true nature of some people, allowing some people to demonstrate how good they are when things are going poorly, while stripping away the facade others have built up and letting everyone see the rot underneath.

    By his actions it would seem that the old man in the story was dead on and Viktor Orbán is indeed a would-be dictator and cruel tyrant. Nice of him to make that clear for all to see, showing just how eager he was for power and how pathetically eager he was to grab it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 18 May 2020 @ 1:38pm

    Hey, regular Techdirt commenters: Y’know how I keep posting that bit about the differences between moderation, discretion, and censorship?

    Andras Kusinszki, the man taken from his home for calling Orban a dictator, told InsightHungary that the arrest had the intended effect: he will be posting fewer comments critical of Orban.

    In this situation, we have an example of actual, factual, ugly-as-fuck censorship. Not that conservatives/trolls will stop whining about how someone getting the boot from Twitter for saying bigoted bullshit equals someone getting arrested for criticism of a government official, but still.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Pixelation, 18 May 2020 @ 6:46pm

      Re:

      I for one, trust the Hungarian government. As we all know, 99% of politicians have our best interests at heart. Why else would they be doing it?...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    icon
    tz1 (profile), 18 May 2020 @ 2:16pm

    Meanwhile, back at...

    Maybe there is more information, but YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter will have shadowbanned or censored it already. The "libertarian: they are private companies..." trope lives. Google went from "don't be evil" to "stay Hungary".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 18 May 2020 @ 2:34pm

      YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have no obligation — legal, moral, or ethical — to host any third-party speech.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 18 May 2020 @ 3:16pm

      Re: Meanwhile, back at...

      Because a private company having rules as to who can and can not use their platforms and the potential punishment of being kicked off a given platform is totally equivalent to a government hauling someone in and interviewing/interrogating them for several hours, with the potential for jail time if they don't like your answers. /s

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 18 May 2020 @ 10:58pm

      Re: Meanwhile, back at...

      "Maybe there is more information, but YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter will have shadowbanned or censored it already"

      If you're using those sites as your primary source of information rather than reliable primary sources, you already have a problem that none of those can fix.

      "The "libertarian: they are private companies..." trope lives."

      That's not libertarian, that just a fact. They don't have to host any content they don't want to host just because some whiny idiot is too lazy to go to sites that do host it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 19 May 2020 @ 12:22am

      Re: Meanwhile, back at...

      "...but YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter will have shadowbanned or censored it already."

      So if someone allows you to use their living room to chat in you somehow feel they should be compelled to never turn anyone away? If Youtube, Facebook and Twitter ban people from their own platform then that's entirely up to them.

      "The "libertarian: they are private companies..." trope lives."

      So the concept of private property is just a trope now?

      Tell you what, when your argument stops meaning that the pub owner can't ban patrons from his premises and private citizens can't evict guests from their own living rooms, THEN perhaps it will be worth reading.

      Up until that point Google, Youtube and Twitter are free to ban whoever they like from the servers THEY own on the platform THEY run. And that STILL doesn't become "censorship" until the government decided those banned people are not allowed to speak their opinion on ANY platform.

      The argument and logic is of the kind that a five year old could understand. Either you are below that point of cognition...or you know damn well that your argument is pure bullshit and keep pushing it anyway because reasons.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 May 2020 @ 6:58pm

    Hungary is too small to be the source of any of our problems.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      R.H. (profile), 18 May 2020 @ 8:20pm

      Re:

      Hungary is about half of the empire which brought us Hitler. I'm pretty sure that ignoring fascists from that region of Europe has caused the world some major problems before.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 18 May 2020 @ 8:39pm

        Re: Re:

        Hungary is tiny even compared to Germany, let alone india, china, the US, Russia, Brazil, or South Africa

        Also that symbol is thousands of years old from anti christian/jew/muslim garbage from a hindu or buddhist society originally

        It's not really pro hindu or buddism, but it's not native to anything but indochina

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 18 May 2020 @ 9:24pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Are you referring to the "swastika", apropos of nothing?

          It had nothing to do with Abrahamic religions in any number of the different cultures which used it quite independently in different forms.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 19 May 2020 @ 12:41am

          Re: Re: Re:

          What does the origin of the old germanic solar wheel have to do with this?

          "Hungary is tiny even compared to Germany..."

          As it wasn't that much bigger back when Franz-Ferdinand took that bullet to his face and world war 1 started.
          The current Hungary is a bit smaller but it's;

          a) A contentious part of the EU where it keeps pushing the boundaries to introduce more...populist extreme right-wing politics notably short on actual democracy, and does this as a part of a growing faction of other member states noted for a brownshirt trend in their internal politics.

          b) Decidedly hostile to much of the EU's policies of "integration" and Orban is just the type of guy who'd see opportunity in leading a block of neo-nazis into secession.

          Every time some idiot has tried uniting europe - from the days of the roman empire through charlemagne and lately, Hitler, it's turned out not to be a great plan. Then fifty years later some new idiot tries to "prevent future pan-european wars" with another harebrained unification scheme. Rinse and repeat.

          We're not quite at that point yet, but the type of state Orban is building is exactly the sort of spark that lights the piled-up powder kegs.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            kag (profile), 19 May 2020 @ 11:08am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            No, it's brussels piling up the powder kegs. it's almost as they believe countries have no sovereignty and must follow their orders. Hungary is not imposing anything on anyone.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 20 May 2020 @ 5:01am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              "No, it's brussels piling up the powder kegs. it's almost as they believe countries have no sovereignty and must follow their orders."

              That is indeed the case.

              "Hungary is not imposing anything on anyone."

              ...except their own people, of course. Ironically that one thing the EU isn't overreaching itself in - human rights and the EU charter - is the part of EU legislation Orban is using to wipe his ass with atm.

              The EU parliament is, to an ever increasing degree, polarizing between the brownshirts from various member states (who are usually on the nationalist train) - and more sensible PM's (who keep wanting more and more federalization, at any price or cost).

              Thing is the brownshirts are gaining traction in every member state where a significant portion of the citizenry do not want more federalization. Many of whom are willing to hold their noses and vote for the swastika if it means a good shot at stopping the loss of democratic power to the unnamed bureaucracy in Brussel. Looking at it closely although I can blame them, I can also understand them.
              Because the alternative candidates, no matter how good, keep pushing for the solutions we can't accept if we want to retain any weight at all to our votes.

              Put it like this, if Bernie Sanders had added "burning the constitution" to his agenda...forget voting for Biden, even the Bernie Bros would hold their nose and vote for Trump.

              And that's what is happening in the EU. The ultranationalists, whether covertly or openly brownshirts and/or fascists gain massive amounts of votes because their opposition, which should have had walk-in victories, have decided to slowly abolish the direct democracy for which their ancestors fought so long.

              At some point one nation will pull a UK and bring along enough member states the EU itself will feel threatened and react...badly. Cue the next Great War. Hungary is a logical origin for the spark to light the pile of powder kegs.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 18 May 2020 @ 9:21pm

      Re:

      Why does it have to be the source of personal problems for you to be worthy of mention?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 18 May 2020 @ 10:59pm

      Re:

      The people of Hungary don't care about your problems.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 May 2020 @ 4:25am

    so much for democracy, privacy, freedom etc etc in all states of the EU. getting more like a unified 1930-40 Germany every day!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 19 May 2020 @ 6:11am

      Re:

      Hungary is well ahead of the curve...but yes. Gradually the member states get told the "luxuries" of the past can't be afforded against the threats against the budding EU of the present.

      Eventually it'll end like every previous attempt of european unification - a pan-european war when enough member states decide enough is enough and secession is the answer.

      After which european nations will bicker among themselves for a few decades until they get along again and some genius decides to stop the possibility of future wars by way of unification. Rinse and repeat.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Talmyr, 20 May 2020 @ 12:11pm

        Re: Re:

        I don't think you can compare the democratic and voluntary membership of the EU (look at Brexit!) with the distinctly militaristic and involuntary approach of the Ottomans, Napoleon, and Hitler & Stalin. One of the primary raisons d'etre of the Eu is to help avoid another such mess - which is why all the proto-fascist states are the ones desperate to thumb their noses at the EU and its levelling rules and democracy.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 25 May 2020 @ 1:19am

          Re: Re: Re:

          "I don't think you can compare the democratic and voluntary membership of the EU (look at Brexit!) with the distinctly militaristic and involuntary approach of the Ottomans, Napoleon, and Hitler & Stalin."

          That's either disingenious or naive. Back when the EU was about the "four freedoms" - or even way back to the Schengen accords - the member states were all in because it was a benefit for everyone without any loss of national sovereignty or national democracy.

          Today you are either all-in with the EU which means you are no longer governed by the citizenry of your own nation but primarily by a massive bureaucracy which has no incentive to actually make things better - or you are completely on the outside. Not even back to the agreements which existed in the old coal-steel union.

          The ottomans, Hitler, Napoleon all had "join or die" as their motto. The current EU has "Join or we choke your economy to death until you come crawling and begging for admittance like the third world nation we will have made you". The threat is less lethal but no less overt.

          "look at Brexit!"

          That "brexit" when the brits found that being outside the EU will screw them back some 50 years or more of international treaties?
          It's more a shit-show than it ought to be courtesy of dumbass british politicians, but one reason the UK can't find a workable solution is because the EU is hardballing so every option left is an unacceptable one.

          The EU is nailing the UK to the mast, bringing the point home that as a european nation you either surrender or you get bullied until you cave in and come back.

          In the end it's still a european unification which brings greater threat of war than we've seen since 1938.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            PaulT (profile), 25 May 2020 @ 1:40am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            "one reason the UK can't find a workable solution is because the EU is hardballing so every option left is an unacceptable one."

            No, it's because those idiot UK politicians, when they weren't pissing around with elections, internal politics and "brexit means brexit" while being unable to define an agreeable meaning between those factions that voted for it, insisted on trying to negotiate things that were never, and could never be on the table. Freedom of movement, hard Irish borders, non-reciprocal agreements, etc. were never something that the EU would discuss, especially as the UK had already got a lot of concessions over the years.

            Once Brexit is on the table, the EU's resonsibility is to its citizens both inside and outside the UK, not to placate a bunch of idiots who can't decide between themselves what they voted for in the first place ("hard" Brexit, "soft" Brexit, another deal like one with another country or a new one? Nobody seems to be able to agree, even now).

            But, as before the vote, the UK gutter press desperately need to blame the EU for the UK's own failures. But, whichever way you want to spin it, the EU is not responsible for making the UK's actions based on a bare majority in an advisory referendum comfortable for them if it means jeopardising its own citizens.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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