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Council of Europe Leader to PM Orbán: Coronavirus Emergency Measures Must Respect Democratic Principles

Fanni Kaszás 2020.03.25.

In a letter to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the Council of Europe’s Secretary-General Marija Pejčinović Burić warned that “measures which member states take in the present exceptional circumstances of the pandemic must comply with both national constitutions and international standards, and observe the very essence of democratic principles.” According to Pejčinović Burić, the Hungarian government’s moves may not meet that criteria.

Due to the pandemic, Council of Europe member states are prompted to take drastic measures in order to protect their citizens, including restricting a number of individual rights and liberties (i.e. lockdowns and curfews), but according to the Secretary General, although the applicable national and international human rights norms allow for such restrictions, the measures introduced by a member state must respect democratic principles.

Pejčinović Burić wrote in the letter that the measures which member states take in “the present exceptional circumstances of the pandemic must comply with both national constitutions and international standards, and observe the very essence of democratic principles. An indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed, and that the emergency measures restricting fundamental human rights are strictly proportionate to the threat which they are supposed to counter,” warning that the Hungarian PM’s moves may not meet the criteria.

She also drew attention to the importance of democratic debate in national parliaments as well as the role of media, and the proper access to official information and documents, which all are essential to democracy. Pejčinović Burić emphasized that the situation requires maintaining trust and confidence within society, and these are needed tools for that. The Secretary General also offered the help of the Council of Europe with their expertise and assistance and she invited Hungarian authorities to “to seize this opportunity.”

There were more concerns voiced Tuesday regarding the Hungarian government’s measures. As we reported yesterday, Christian Wigand, spokesperson for the European Commission also emphasized at a press conference that during the coronavirus crisis, “any emergency measures taken should be proportionate and necessary.”

European Commission: Emergency Measures Should be Proportionate and Necessary, Freedom of Press Important

He also called on member states to respect freedom of press even during the coronavirus crisis because “democracy cannot work without free and independent media,” and during the time of the coronavirus crisis, “the work of the press is now more important than ever.”

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) also expressed their concerns about provisions of the coronavirus response draft bill, saying it could negatively impact the work of the media reporting on the pandemic. OSCE representative Harlem Désir said that he “fully understands the need to combat false information during a health emergency, however, there is a great risk that the new regulation will not so much penalize the disseminators of harmful disinformation but instead make the work of independent journalism more difficult.” Désir also drew attention to the crucial role of the media in providing important information to the public and to counter ‘fake news’ about the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Orbán government says that the opposition is “spreading lies” about the government’s epidemic response bill on the international stage and the ruling parties’ MEPs who have called for an end to “irresponsible shouts of protest from the outside.”

featured photo: Marija Pejčinović Burić (via Council of Europe)