Hungary: Deterioration of press freedom under the pretext of COVID-19

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has used COVID-19 as a pretext to extend his grip on the country, notably on the media. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) strongly condemns the anti-democratic practices adopted by the government.

Credits: ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP

While it is not the first time that media freedom has been threatened in Hungary, press freedom has suffered an unprecedented decline this year.

On 30 March 2020, a law was passed in Hungary stating -among other things- that spreading false information about the virus or government measures is punishable by up to 5 years in prison.

This is a clear attempt to intimidate journalists as well as citizens who would like to testify. Since the law was passed, Hungarian journalists claim that sources are less willing to talk.

Media pluralism has also been degraded under the pretext of the pandemic. The ownership of most media organisations is concentrated in the hands of people close to the regime and the few remaining independent media outlets have been under systematic pressure in recent months.

In addition to being under-resourced and threatened, independent voices are also increasingly silenced in the face of growing rhetoric in favour of the government.

The Hungarian government is now going further, closing down media outlets it considers disruptive. Klubradio, one of the last independent stations in the country, was taken off the air and stopped broadcasting in February 2021, after a decision by the Media Council. The latter, which regulates all media enterprises in the country, is composed of 5 members appointed by the political party Fidesz, of which Viktor Orbán is the President.

IFJ General Secretary, Anthony Bellanger, said: “The Hungarian government has taken very worrying decisions that threaten seriously media freedom and journalist’ fundamental rights. We, along with the EFJ, have repeatedly called on the European Union institutions to condemn the Hungarian government media crackdown and to take urgent action to guarantee media freedom and plurality in the country."