Since a landslide victory brought him back to power ten years ago, Prime Minister of Hungary Victor Orbán has gradually eroded the country’s adolescent democracy. Government loans allowed the takeover of the vast majority of television networks, news outlets and newspapers to parrot the line of the Fidesz government, and the coronavirus crisis gave Orbán the ability to push the limits even further.
The emergency legislation passed by the two-thirds majority that his far-right party holds amounted to the biggest power grab seen since Putin consolidated power in Russia. Under the state of emergency, Orbán has the power to govern unchallenged, with no limit on how long these measures will last.
Whilst this was claimed to be necessary to allow essential laws to protect the country to be enacted swiftly, Orbán has already exploited this control as a way to end the legal recognition of trans people in the country.
However, events over the last 48 hours have also seen Orbán take his first steps in exploiting another element of the law – the power to hand out jail terms for those spreading misinformation about the crisis.
Yesterday, a 64 year old man in the northern town of Szerencs was apprehended by police and his house searched. Why was he arrested and a search warrant issued? He criticised the government over their handling of the coronavirus and called Orbán a “cruel tyrant”. The man was later released without charge, but a post on the website of the national police warned others that “a malicious or ill-considered share on the internet could constitute a crime”.
This has not been an isolated incident, with an activist for the centre-left Momentum party being detained and his electronic devices seized in the south-east town of Gyula for a critical Facebook post. He had claimed hospital beds were being emptied to prepare for coronavirus patients.
These latest raids are what opposition groups and human rights organisations feared would result from a law left deliberately vague with no sunset clause. The detention of members of the public, including those affiliated with opposition parties, for posting criticism of the Orbán regime should raise serious alarm bells, particularly within the European Union, and also raise the prospect of independent journalists being the regime’s next target.
Whilst both of these men criticised the government in relation to the coronavirus pandemic, it is not too hard to see this escalate into any negative posts under the guise of ‘protecting the public from misinformation’.
If such behaviour is left to go unpunished by a EU member state, what message does that send to Orbán and others like him in countries like Poland? Words without action risk repeating the same mistakes of the League of Nations in the 1930s, where authoritarian states were allowed to act unchallenged and unchecked by the international community. Inaction now could see the Hungarian government continue to tighten their grip on power.