By Samuel Stolton and Vlagyiszlav Makszimov
(EurActiv) — The Hungarian Parliament approved new emergency powers on Monday (30 March) that will allow the ruling Fidesz party the right to rule by decree, without a set time limit, in a move that prompted an outcry from human rights groups.
The new plans would also see up to five years of imprisonment for those accused of spreading misinformation, as well as up to eight years for those found to be breaching the quarantine measures introduced as a means to stem the coronavirus outbreak in Hungary.
The law passed on Monday with 137 votes for, 53 against and no abstentions, with the entire opposition voting against the bill.
Moreover, by-elections and referendums can no longer be held in the country for as long as the state of emergency period is in effect. The next parliamentary elections are due in 2022.
The draft text was proposed on 20 March by Justice Minister Judit Varga and was first voted on last Monday (23 March), when the opposition rejected the law via an extraordinary procedure.
“If opposition MPs do not vote to extend the emergency, we will solve the crisis without them,” Prime Minister Orbán told the parliament at the time.
Meanwhile, the adoption of the bill caused concern across the EU on Monday. Former Italian Prime Minister Matter Renzi tweeted that the EU must make Orbán change his mind, or “drive Hungary out of the Union.”
There was also an outcry from activists in the human rights community, who fear that Orbán may have been handed a carte blanche to crack down on freedom of speech in the country.
The text of the new bill states that those who spread false information or “distorted” facts could be prosecuted, with terms carrying “one to five years of imprisonment.”
“One particularly disastrous aspect of Orbán seizing unlimited power is how the new law will allow the authorities to silence critics,” Andrew Stroehlein, European Media Director at Human Rights Watch, told EURACTIV.
“The ruling party Fidesz – still part of the EPP, and supported by them for years – already controls the country’s mass media to an astounding degree,” Stoehlein said and added:
“The new law means the state will be able to lock up anyone who publishes ‘false’ or ‘distorted’ facts: they would face up to five years in prison. And no points for guessing who will determine what is ‘false’ or ‘distorted’: the ruling party.”
EU & UK efforts to stamp out COVID-19 fake news
Elsewhere in the EU, there have recently been efforts to clamp down on the spread of misinformation concerning the coronavirus in the EU.
On Friday (27 March), the Commission’s Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová sat down with tech platforms Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and the association EDiMA, in a second meeting since the coronavirus outbreak in the EU.
The platforms assured Jourová that they have started to actively promote coronavirus information emanating from authoritative sources. They have also pledged to demote or remove forbidden or harmful content on the issue.
Measures have also been put in place to remove ads related to vital medical equipment, in order to prevent traders from profiteering from the crisis. Despite this, there remain ‘gaps’ in fully enforcing these policies, according to a Commission readout of the meeting.
“It is crucial to remove the financial incentives from clickbait disinformation and profiteering scams which continue to be an issue,” read a statement from Jourová after the meeting. The vice-president added that more needs to be done in terms of the platforms sharing ‘relevant data’ with the research and fact-checking community, amid the coronavirus crisis.
The UK government are also investing in the misinformation fight against the virus, having put their Rapid Response Unit into operation to identify and resolve a ‘range of harmful narratives online.’
The unit, made up of government and tech experts, is headed by the UK’s Counter Disinformation Cell led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
“We need people to follow expert medical advice and stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. It is vital that this message hits home and that misinformation and disinformation which undermines it is knocked down quickly,” read a statement from Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden.