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On Wednesday, Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled that the new amendment to the Penal Code related to scare-mongering, which must be applied during a special legal order, is not unconstitutional. However, the Court’s decision also states as a constitutional requirement that the law only applies to those who knowingly spread false or distorted information, and only if the authorities are thereby hindered in their ability to implement protective measures during an emergency.

An appeal submitted to the court claimed the law carrying a five-year prison sentence, restricts freedom of speech and is ill-defined, with the risk that it may be applied arbitrarily.

On Wednesday the court noted that the disputed parts of the Penal Code prohibit “communication of knowingly false or distorted facts to the general public” only if the authorities are thereby hindered in their ability to implement protective measures during an emergency. The ban, the court added, does not apply to critical opinions.

Bill on Indefinite Extension of Special Decrees Garners Distrust over Rule of Law and Freedom of Media

The court said it was necessary and proportionate to put limits on speech if there was an overriding social interest in doing so.

The Orbán administration introduced a special epidemic response law in late March, granting the government enhanced powers.

One part of the regulation expanded the section of Hungary’s Criminal Code on scaremongering during a special legal order.  A person who “during the period of special legal order and in front of a large audience, states or disseminates any untrue fact or any misrepresented true fact that is capable of hindering or preventing the efficiency of protection, is guilty of a felony,” the law states.

Many feared the government only wanted to use this change as a tool to silence and pressure the free press reporting about the government’s omissions and lack of reported information related to the epidemic.

Police Investigating Facebook Users for ‘Spreading Fake News’ Causes Uproar in Hungary

These concerns did not seem unfounded, especially after news about people who were arrested for posting their critical comments online about the government’s actions started circulating.

By June 4th, a total of 131 criminal proceedings were initiated for scaremongering, news site Index reports.

Later, the portal also requested public data from the National Office for the Judiciary (OBH). It shows, however, that during the state-of-emergency, eleven cases were filed for ‘threat of public endangerment,’ and only one for scaremongering.

Featured photo illustration by pixabay.com