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Hungary: the criticisms, the responses and some facts

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Hungary: the criticisms, the responses and some facts

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Earlier this month Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini produced a draft report strongly critical of Hungary under the government of Victor Orban. The government responded by dismissing the points. Here is a summary of the positions of both sides on some of the key issues alongside relevant evidence, as pieced together by two researchers based in Germany and Hungary.

1. About corruption and conflicts of interest

The Sargentini report says MPs should also be obliged to report conflicts of interest as they arise and this should be accompanied by a more robust obligation to submit asset declarations. It also calls for sanctions in the case of inaccurate asset declarations.

The Hungarian Government says the law regulating the Hungarian Parliament, together with other pieces of legislation, establishes strict rules about conflict of interest for MPs. They do not mention the asset declarations.

The facts on the ground: No sanctions apply if the asset declaration is incomplete or inaccurate if the MP corrects it. For example, Antal Rogan former minister of the government declared he has half of a 149 m2 big flat in Budapest (in a nice luxury park), but changed it, it is said that an opposition paper was about to write the story. Later he added that it s actually 185 m2) Janos Lazar former minister forgot to declare the money he got from the EU and from the Hungarian state for his forests development.

2. About media oversight

The Sargentini report says the rules governing the election of the members of the Media Council need to be changed to ensure fair representation of socially significant political and other groups.

The Hungarian government says that members of the Media Council were elected by a qualified majority of the Parliament for their nine-year stint. They say the high professional requirements and the long mandate of the members of the Media Council ensure independence from both the Government and the Parliament.

The facts on the ground: Fidesz and its KDNP allies had a two-thirds majority in the parliament nine years ago and were able to block opposition candidates for the media authority. They still enjoy the majority, meaning the selection is entirely within their control again.

3. About freedom of information

The Sargentini draft says that following amendments to that law concerning the freedom of information, the right to access government information has been restricted further.

The Hungarian Government says that experience from the administration revealed that information requests put an overwhelming additional burden on data controllers that could prevent them from fulfilling their routine tasks.

The facts on the ground: Other countries such as Slovakia or the Czech Republic have implemented electronic systems to ease the burden of managing information release. According to the European Semester Report, Hungarian institutions repeatedly use the law to reject data requests by journalist and NGOs.

4. About freedoms during elections

The Sargentini draft quotes the OSCE statement saying access to information as well as the freedoms of the media and association have been restricted, and that media coverage of the campaign was extensive, yet highly polarized and lacking critical analysis. It further noted that politicization of media ownership had a chilling effect on editorial freedom, hindering voters’ access to pluralistic information.

The Hungarian government says it is a fact that opposition media altogether reaches a considerably wider public, taking online media as an example, where the proportion of government-critical portals is around 80 percent. They say that the ownership and political spectrum of the Hungarian media is more diverse, and the freedom of the press is more prevalent than in most Western European countries.

The facts on the ground: The online media is the only news media-type that the government (and their allies) do not dominate entirely, in all other aspects (national and regional newspapers and weeklies, radio and television news broadcasts) a 2017 study based on national audit numbers shows government-linked media have a stranglehold.

5. About freedom of opinion and expression

The Sargentini draft quotes the UN Human Rights Committee's observations from 5 April 2018, where they expressed concerns about Hungary’s media laws and practices that restrict freedom of opinion and expression. They added concerns about the current legislative framework does not fully ensure an uncensored and unhindered press.

The Hungarian government says the independent international media watch organisation Freedom House observed in a report in October 2012 that Hungary is a free country and despite the monopoly held by the Hungarian News Agency MTI, the Hungarian media scene is diverse.

The facts on the ground: Since their report quoted in 2012, Freedom House has observed a deterioration in the situation, now classing Hungary as "partly free". A Hungarian government recently dismissed the group as a "Soros organisation [that] has launched an open attack against Hungary" The Hungarian government accuses financier George Soros of funding groups aimed at undermining it.

6. On higher education

The Sargentini draft cites the Venice Commission saying it appears highly problematic from the standpoint of the rule of law and fundamental rights principles to introduce additional restrictions on foreign universities which are already established in Hungary and have been lawfully operating there for many years.

The Hungarian government quotes the Venice Commission saying it is a legitimate goal to provide greater transparency in order to guarantee a quality education and to protect future students.

The facts on the ground: The Central European University, which is the main institution targeted by the new rules, is ranked among the top 160 universities in Europe, according to The Times Higher Education Best Universities in Europe 2017.

7. On restrictions on organisations funded from abroad

The Sargentini draft says the draft law was introduced against the background of continued antagonistic rhetoric from certain members of the ruling coalition, who publicly labelled some NGOs as “foreign agents” based on the source of their funding and question their legitimacy.

The Hungarian Government says that the Act is intended to enhancing the transparency of funding of non-governmental organizations. They say the term ‘organisations supported from abroad’ is purely factual does not include any negative value judgement.

The facts on the ground: The already existing relevant legislation requires civil society organisations, regardless of their funding sources, to disclose in detail their annual financial reports (these detailed reports are available on the court’s and the organisation’s website).

8. On racism and intolerance

The Sargentini draft cites the Council of Europe’s Commissioners concerns on anti-Gypsyism being the most blatant form of intolerance in Hungary.

The Hungarian Government says that Roma people are able to benefit from a 10 million HUF support fund to exchange their former homes for modern houses with gardens.

The facts on the ground: The eligibility criteria of the funding programme effectively exclude families living in the most severe poverty, as people are not eligible unless they were employed during the 6 months prior to their application.

9. On asylum rules

The Sargentini draft quotes several concerns from UN Commissioners when they expressed concerns about the increasing number of allegations of abuse in Hungary against asylum-seekers and migrants by border authorities, and the broader restrictive border and legislative measures, including access to asylum procedures.

The Hungarian Government says that they firmly deny any ill-treatment of asylum seekers by Hungarian border authorities. They claim that the reports on alleged ill-treatments are mostly based on subjective reporting based on accounts from illegal migrants and NGOs assisting them.

The facts on the ground: UNHCR, Humans Right Watch, Medecins Sans Frontier, and FRONTEX are among organisations that have criticised aspects of Hungary's treatment of immigrants.