The latest annual human rights report of the United States has been published, in which the situation in Hungary is also discussed at length. The document, published by the US State Department, says that while fundamental rights and freedoms are respected in Hungary but “exercised in an adverse climate.” The report also mentions a number of problems, including the challenges of media plurality in Hungary, threats to judicial independence, and corruption.
For nearly five decades, the US State Department has been issuing annual reports on the status of human rights in countries around the world, including Hungary. The latest 2021 summary is particularly important, because it was Joe Biden’s first year as president, and his new administration has made the protection of human rights a cornerstone of its domestic and foreign policy.
According to the summary, last year saw continued democratic backsliding around the world, with creeping authoritarianism that threatens both human rights and democracy – most notably, at present, with Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
A key finding of the summary on Hungary is that fundamental rights and freedoms were respected in the country overall but exercised in an adverse climate, the US State Department said, referring to an earlier report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observation mission.
According to the 51-page chapter of the document on Hungary, the Orbán government has taken a number of steps that some experts and legal scholars in the country consider systemic threats to the country’s judicial independence. One such thing is the National Office for the Judiciary (OBH) president’s unbalanced powers in court administration. In particular, the report points out that the President of the OBH can use his statutory powers to transfer judges outside the judiciary to administrative bodies and then back to judicial service, which observers say could blur the boundaries between courts and administration and potentially jeopardize the right to a fair trial.
The report provides a detailed account of the Orbán government’s alleged surveillance of Hungarian journalists and media owners, as well as lawyers and politicians, using Israeli military-grade spyware Pegasus. A forensic examination of the phones on the leaked list confirmed suspicions in some cases, and the chairman of the parliamentary defense and law enforcement committee (Lajos Kósa) said that the Interior Ministry had purchased Pegasus, and that in every case, its use had been sanctioned by the Ministry of Justice or the courts.
The document also examines the situation of the Hungarian media, stating that “the combined effects of a politically controlled media regulatory authority and distortionary state intervention in the media market have eroded media pluralism and freedom of expression.” The report criticizes an earlier government decree from May 2020 that allowed public authorities to delay access to public data by up to 90 days so as not to “jeopardize” official duties during the COVID-19 pandemic state-of-emergency.
The State Department points out that although the law mandates that public service media providers pursue balanced, accurate, detailed, objective, and responsible news and information services, these requirements were often disregarded. In particular, the report notes that Hungary’s state news agency MTI, which provides its services free of charge, Media watchdogs, and independent outlets often criticize for concealing facts and opinions unfavorable to the Orbán government. It records complaints by Hungarian opposition politicians that they were rarely allowed to appear on public television and radio or given significantly less time to express their views.
In addition, according to the document, significant human rights issues also included the government’s restrictions on media content related to the “portrayal and promotion of homosexuality;” exposure of asylum seekers at risk of refoulement; corrupt use of state power to grant privileges to certain economic actors; political intimidation of and legal restrictions on civil society organizations, including criminal and financial penalties for migration-related work of non-governmental organizations; and threats of violence by extremists targeting Roma and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons.
At the same time, the report found that while the government took some steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, action against high-level, politically connected corruption was limited.
Featured photo illustration by Patrick Semansky/AP pool/MTI