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Hungary: Call To Reverse Interference With Courts, Media

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The Hungarian government’s interference with judicial independence and media freedom violates its international obligations and puts human rights at risk, Human Rights Watch said Friday. The government has provided no credible justification for the raft of regressive legal measures undermining human rights protections, the rule of law and the basic institutions that guarantee democracy.

The country’s new constitution, which came into force on January 1, 2012, and other laws adopted over the last year give the ruling Fidesz party, which holds a two-thirds majority in parliament, the ability to interfere arbitrarily with the judicial system and media, in violation of human rights law. Changes to election boundaries appear designed solely to ensure a continued parliamentary majority for the ruling party. The moves have provoked widespread international alarm, mass protests in Budapest and condemnation by former Hungarian dissidents.

“With the changes Hungary has made to its system for protecting rights and democracy, it would not meet the requirements to join the EU today,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The situation demands a resolute response by the EU, and the US as well.”

The European Commission should start infringement proceedings, Human Rights Watch said. The US should also review whether the fundamental changes to Hungary’s system breach its obligations as a NATO member. NATO requires members to have a “functioning democratic political system” and to respect common values of “individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

The changes to the legal system introduced by the new constitution and other new laws fundamentally undermine judicial independence, Human Rights Watch said. They create a new National Judiciary Office (NJO), whose president has the sole authority to appoint most judges. Together with the chief prosecutor, also a recent appointee, the NJO president can decide which judge should hear a case.

This effectively neutralizes the Constitutional Court, which has issued a series of critical rulings against the government, as a check on state power. The person appointed president of the Judiciary Office is the wife of a leading member of the Fidesz party.

The picture for the media is equally alarming. A controversial media regulation body established in January 2011 and staffed by ruling party loyalists can impose large fines on or close media outlets for failing to ensure “balanced” reporting, creating a chilling effect on free expression.

An independent talk radio station, Klubrádió, lost its license in December and will close in March. Large numbers of journalists working for the state broadcaster have been dismissed, ostensibly for efficiency but in some cases the dismissals appear to be linked to their objections to government interference in editorial matters.

On January 3, the European Commission said it was studying the constitution and other new laws to determine whether they comply with EU law, and the following day said that a high-level EU task force will do the same with the media law. On December 12, the Commission vice-president, Viviane Reding, wrote to the Hungarian government seeking urgent clarification about the judicial appointment issue and other issues in the new constitution. An intervention by the Commission in early 2011 on the media law failed to achieve significant results because infringement proceedings against Hungary over alleged breaches of EU law were dropped without real changes having been made.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called for a greater commitment to the independence of the judiciary and free press during a visit to Hungary in July, and the US ambassador to Hungary raised a series of critical questions about the changes in a December oped in the Hungarian weekly Heti Válasz.

Developments in Hungary have also drawn criticism from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s representative on freedom of the media, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe’s expert body on constitutional law (known as the “Venice Commission”) and Hungarian civil society organizations.

“The Hungarian government’s actions jeopardize the very foundations of a democratic society based on the rule of law – the right to criticize the government and the ability to challenge its excesses in the courts,” Ward said. “The removal of those checks on government power creates a serious risk of human rights abuse.”

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