In 2010, Viktor Orbán was elected to the office of Prime Minister in Hungary. Orbán’s campaign has been viewed as one of the first ‘populist’ victories of the 2010s. He stood on a manifesto of social conservatism and what he called "illiberal democracy". Since his election, the Hungarian government has received significant criticism for its approach to human rights. In particular, the government has been criticised for limiting press freedom, attempting to silence political opponents, and for mistreating refugees who have arrived in the country as part of the European refugee crisis.
Freedom of the press
Reports suggest there has been a significant decline in press freedom over the past few years. These reports often focus on two laws which have been introduced by Orbán. First, in 2011, Orbán introduced legislation which created a new “media control body”. The body is staffed wholly by individuals appointed by the ruling party and all media outlets in Hungary are required to join it. It is alleged that this body is being used by the Hungarian government to control the press.
Second, recent amendments to Hungary’s Freedom of Information Act have significantly increased the price charged for the fulfilment of freedom of information requests and have created greater restrictions on gaining copyrighted documents. Freedom House have reported that these changes have limited the scope and the power of the law.
In addition to these new laws, there has also been a newspaper closure. Last year, the largest independent newspaper in Hungary Nepszabadsag suddenly closed down. This was officially attributed to financial losses and plummeting circulation, but this has been questioned by former employees. They referred to the shutting of the newspaper as a “coup”. The co-chairman of the ruling party was reported to have said “it was high time Nepszabadsag shut down unexpectedly” before the closure which came just days after the newspaper had published a series of critiques of the Hungarian Government.
This current climate has resulted in significant public distrust. A poll last year found that nearly two-thirds of adults living in Hungary believe that the freedom of the press is limited.
In addition to these crackdowns on press freedoms, there have also been reports that the Government has attempted to silence political opponents. For instance, in 2017, the Hungarian Parliament passed a new law which requires foreign-based universities to have their operations approved by the Hungarian Government. This was widely viewed as an attack on the Central European University - one of the country’s top universities - which was founded by George Soros and which is registered in New York. Allies of Orbán have been extremely critical of Soros - a Hungarian-born liberal campaigner - in the past. For example, officials from the ruling political party and pro-Government media have accused Soros of representing an unelected, meddling, liberal elite whose time has passed.
Similarly, the Open Society Foundation (OSF) - an international NGO founded by Soros to advance justice, education, public health and independent media - has faced new crackdowns. Amendments to a law which are presently being debated require all foreign-funded NGOs with foreign donations of at least 7.2 million forints (just over £19,500) to register with authorities. This has been viewed as an attempt to impede the OSF in Hungary. The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly has called on Hungary to suspend this debate. OSF has been criticised by government officials for funding civil rights organisations in the country and for allegedly promoting illegal migration and serving foreign interests. The Vice-Chairman of the ruling political party has stated that the OSF places “political correctness over national government” and that there is now a new opportunity to crackdown on it.
The Hungarian Government has also been criticised for its approach to the European refugee crisis. Due to its geographical position, Hungary has received some of the highest number of refugees per capita in Europe. In response, the Hungarian Government has introduced a number of laws and policies which critics have argued infringe on the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers.
The Government has repeatedly extended a nationwide state of emergency due to “mass immigration”, despite seeing a decrease in asylum applications in 2016. The initial state of emergency which was called in two southern regions of Hungary in 2015 allowed the Government to shut down roads and speed up asylum court cases. This was then extended nationwide in 2016 where the state of emergency increased the number of border control officers, increased the number of army officers on the border and intensified border checks by allowing the army to assume control of registering asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch stated that “militarising its borders and denying access to protection is sadly consistent with Hungary’s repressive approach to asylum seekers and migrants.”
The Hungarian Parliament has also approved plans which require all asylum seekers over the age of 14 to be placed in detention camps. The United Nations Human Rights Council have argued that “this new law violates Hungary’s obligations under international and EU laws and will have a terrible physical and psychological impact on women, children and men who have already greatly suffered.” UNICEF have also expressed concern that unaccompanied minors older than 14 will detained in these camps. Orbán has stated that at any time the refugees are free to go if they choose to return back to Serbia and that his country is under siege from immigration.
The conditions within detention camps have also received significant censure. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture has reported that torture occurs within these camps. While, in 2016, the European Court on Human Rights ruled that the asylum detention of a gay asylum-seeker was in violation of his right to liberty and safety.
The deterioration of human rights in Hungary has caused concern across the world. To date, Orbán and the Hungarian Government have shown no intention of changing their policies. As a member of the European Union, the EU is able to exert some pressure on Hungary. The European Commission has threatened Hungary with legal action however organisations such as Human Rights Watch have called for it to be more vocal. Furthermore, the foreign minister of Luxembourg has called for Hungary to be thrown out of the European Union over its treatment of refugees and the state of its media. Other than pressure from the EU, there is little possibility of Hungary reversing its current policies. That is, until the next Hungarian general election is held, which will occur in or before the spring of 2018. Current polls, however, suggest that Orbán will secure an increased majority in that election.
Michael Hough is a research assistant at Bright Blue