The government has submitted a bill to indefinitely extend the validity of special decrees in a state of emergency situation and also to introduce stricter rules for spreading “fake news.” The government has asked all opposition parliamentary groups to support the draft, as it says this is the only way to ensure the decrees introduced to handle the novel coronavirus epidemic remain in place. But the opposition and many others have been heavily criticizing the proposal, accusing the government of trying to introduce a dictatorship and to completely disable the free press under the disguise of actions against the Covid-19 pandemic. Summary.
In an attempt to fight the novel coronavirus pandemic, the government introduced a state of emergency on March 11th. According to Hungary’s Constitution, during this extraordinary legal state, the government can make decrees that may suspend the application of certain laws and may deviate from legal statutes.
These regulations, however, can only remain in force for 15 days, after which parliament’s approval is necessary for an extension.
As the deadline expires, a new bill to indefinitely extend the validity of the government’s decrees during a state of emergency was submitted to Parliament by Justice Minister Judit Varga last Friday.
The bill, which requires a two-thirds majority, would also modify the Criminal Code, envisaging stricter sanctions on those breaching quarantine regulations and commits scaremongering.
The immediate adoption of the proposal required a vote which deviates from the House Rules (i.e. a 4/5 majority vote) on Monday, so the governing parties asked the opposition parties to support the bill.
“It is time to cooperate; we require responsible behavior and support from the opposition parties,” Zoltán Kovács, state secretary for international relations, said in a video message late Sunday. A possible failure of the bill could not only prevent the government from taking timely action, but jeopardize measures taken so far, such as economic ones aimed at protecting jobs, Kovács insisted.
Fidesz’s parliamentary group leader Máté Kocsis told pro-government news channel Hírtv on Saturday that even if they didn’t get a four-fifths majority support on Monday, they would accept the bill regardless (Fidesz-KDNP has a qualified majority in the parliament) 8 days later in accordance with the House Rules.
Although the governing parties have been relentless in asking the support of the opposition, they have failed to show any signs of cooperation.
The government’s arguments
In his opinion piece for government-critical news site Index, Secretary of State of the Prime Minister’s Office, Balázs Orbán, reveals the governing parties’ most important arguments for the bill.
The state secretary starts by stating this special legal order is not unconstitutional, but an extraordinary constitutional state in which Hungary faces a situation it cannot handle under the normal course of its operation.
According to Balázs Orbán, the Parliament is and will be free to decide in the future whether it agrees with the government’s assessment of the situation, and it can choose at any time to withdraw its consent to the extension of the state of emergency. (Viktor Orbán also emphasized this in his speech in parliament on Monday).
He argues that setting a deadline for how long the measures would last wouldn’t be a good idea, because by the time the National Assembly had to support the decrees again it might be in a quandry, therefore Hungary might reach a chaotic, illegal state exactly at the peak of the outbreak.
Gergely Gulyás, head of the prime minister’s office, put it more simply. At his regular press briefing on Thursday, the minister said that in his opinion only a fraction of the opposition is behaving responsibly, while others are „cheering for the virus.”
The opposition fears Orbán wants to introduce a dictatorship
Although all opposition parties stated that the introduced measures of the government parties and the state of emergency are reasonable, they fear that the Orbán government would use the mandate granted by the new bill to further deteriorate the rule of law and democracy, as the new regulation would make it possible for the government to lead the country by issuing decrees virtually maintaining the special legal order, for as long as they’d like.
Since the immigration emergency decree, introduced in connection with the 2015 migration crisis, has been extended again and again in the previous years and it is still in effect, they fear that this state of emergency situation – which “lies somewhere between the peaceful times of democracy and the state of war,” according to PM Orbán – would last for years if there is no end date in the legislation (which could be lengthened if needed). That is why most opposition parties proposed a 90-day time limit for the validity of the decrees.
Several civil rights organizations protested against the bill as well, declaring the draft unconstitutional. In their joint statement, Amnesty International Hungary, Eötvös Károly Institute, Hungarian Helsinki Committee, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) underline that the bill in its current form does not meet the democratic and constitutional requirements of the special legal order.
Regarding the bill, the opposition parties have called for talks between all seven parliamentary parties on Saturday, ahead of Monday’s plenary session in parliament. On Monday, the opposition voted against the accelerated parliamentary procedure.
Freedom of speech in jeopardy?
As the bill intends to also extend the criminal law on scaremongering during a special legal order, there are many who fear the government wants to use it as a tool to silence and pressure the free press that wants to report about the government’s omissions related to the epidemic.
The government has repeatedly accused the opposition press of spreading fake news since the outbreak, thus many fear this would be their answer to “this problem.” In the past weeks, the pro-Fidesz media and the state media have also repeatedly criticized the government-critical media outlets for “spreading fake news.” One of the pro-government opinion leaders has even called them “collaborators of the coronavirus” and many urged imprisoning them.
In his Facebook post, lawyer András Schiffer, founder and former president of the LMP, writes about the amendment. Schiffer agrees that the strict prosecution of scaremongering that prevents or disrupts the defense is, of course, correct, but the wording of the bill- namely the part about „spreading the news that hinders the effectiveness of the defense”- makes it possible to abuse it.
According to the former politician, a criminal restriction on freedom of expression without clear normative content is unconstitutional even in a state of emergency.
At the same time, Máté Kocsis, said in his speech to Parliament on Monday that they were willing to discuss the amendment regarding scaremongering, as no human lives depend on that.
Bill to give special powers to the government to be voted on anyway
However, it is important to note that, in the current power relations, the parliament has only a symbolic check function. Since the governning parties alone have a qualified majority, they could easily extend the validity of the „state of emergency decrees.” And as Fidesz group leader Máté Kocsis said: they can also accept the bill without any problem next week.
Featured photo by Tamás Kovács/MTI