Viktor Orbán at a European Parliament debate about Hungary in May. His government has brought in a law that will make it harder for journalists and others to make Freedom of Information Act requests. (AFP/Frederick Florin)
Viktor Orbán at a European Parliament debate about Hungary in May. His government has brought in a law that will make it harder for journalists and others to make Freedom of Information Act requests. (AFP/Frederick Florin)

New hurdles for Hungary’s press as Orbán restricts FOI requests

“This is the best thing that has ever happened in Hungary.” Katalin Erdélyi, a freedom of information activist, was referring to a ground-breaking website launched in Hungary in 2012. “I was glad because I realized the potential and how it will help me get all the information I longed for,” she told me. The website, KiMitTud (WhoKnowsWhat, in English) is a simple online tool that helps average citizens file information requests to public bodies, and to view and comment on other people’s requests. “I alone filed around 500 requests since the launch,” Erdélyi said.

The blogger regularly publishes articles based on the information provided by ministries or local communities. She also uses the answers as the basis for stories on Hungary’s non-profit investigative journalism outlet Atlatszo, which hosts the FOI-request site. With more than 5,000 requests and hundreds of regular users since its launch, KiMitTud has proved to be a success.

But new legislation on FOI requests could severely curtail the ability of journalists and others to access this type of information. “In a way, we are the victims of our own success,” Tibor Sepsi, a lawyer specializing in FOI-requests, said. Sepsi, who provides legal assistance to Atlatszo, explained that Hungary’s FOI Act, which was the first such legislation in Hungary and one of the first in the region, was adopted in 1992 after the fall of the communist dictatorship. “It was and still is an exemplary legislation, even in global comparison,” he said.

Its true potential was explored only with the spread of online tools, such as KiMitTud, which made the rights enacted in the law accessible to everyone. As a consequence, ministry and local officials started to complain about what they said was a disproportionate increase in their workload, according to reports. The degree of tension was demonstrated in January, when Mate Kocsis, a MP and mayor in a district of Budapest, launched an attack during a city council meeting against those filing FOI-requests. In his outburst, which was videoed, he labelled those making the requests “paid political activists” and accused them of being motivated by “bad intentions, laziness and intrusiveness,” their ultimate political goal being to “paralyze public administration.”

“The government first stigmatized activists and journalists who ask for public information, saying that they abuse the law, then they seriously curtail their rights,” Sepsi said. Despite protests from international anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, which warned that “the law must not be passed,” and Access Info Europe, a European FOI-organization that accused the Hungarian government of “sabotaging” the legislation, parliament approved the bill. The rulings which, as Transparency International put it, have the potential for “full state control of public information,” will start to be enforced from October 1. The government’s argument is that a better balance should be established between those who request the information and those who hold it, and a better protection should be guaranteed to the latter against what is deemed to be abusive requests.

Freedom of information – for a price

Among the concerns of activists and journalists are that the new rules would allow requests to be refused on the grounds that documents are “preparatory,” meaning they are relevant to future government decisions, or that making them public would infringe the copyright of third persons. It also allows repeat requests to be rejected, even if the initial one has not yet been answered. The most controversial clause allows public bodies to charge arbitrary fees for what has been described as the “human labor costs” of responding to a FOI request. “Until now, only incidental costs of photocopying were normally approved by the courts,” Sepsi told me. Details of the fees have not yet been released, but Sepsi said that he thinks the amendment leaves open the possibility that filing an FOI-request would be prohibitively expensive.

“A lot depends on how the implementation goes and how the judges will react to these arguments, but the amendment will definitely create uncertainty and a feeling that FOI-requests are impossible without a professional lawyer,” he said. Sepsi added that in some Western democracies that are more developed than Hungary, but have weaker FOI legislation, state and local institutions proactively publish information and documents. But in Hungary, the legislation was almost the only way citizens and independent journalists could enforce more transparency. “Now, this leverage is being weakened,” he said

It is easy to view the law as part of an anti-democratic drive pursued by the right-wing Fidesz government (see CPJ’s previous blog posts here and here), which launched an all-out war against the independent media since coming to power in 2010. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s latest move, however, surprised even his supporters: he cut financing to loyal media outlets owned by a friend which, until last year, according to industry magazine Kreativ, had been funded through state advertising budgets. Instead, state funds are being channeled into the state media, which, over the past couple of years, have been turned into a government mouthpiece, according to Mertek, a think-tank monitoring Hungarian press freedom. In addition, financing is reported to have been directed to newly created media outlets, all of which are in the hands of businessmen described as being loyal to Orbán, according to the local press.

This decision came after newspapers owned by the prime minister’s long-time friend, Lajos Simicska, one of the most powerful oligarchs in the country, criticized Orbán’s plans to introduce an advertising tax that would have had a significant impact on his media empire. The dispute escalated when Simicska made a series of high profile and abusive statements against Orbán. The effects of this row are now widely felt by journalists working for Simicska’s outlets. According to the Hungarian press, government politicians are refusing to give interviews or provide information to them as part of what appears to be an unofficial boycott over Simicska’s comments.

No surprise that the government’s latest move to change the FOI-legislation has created an almost unprecedented unity in the ranks of the otherwise partisan Hungarian media. Even a pro-government daily published an editorial in July criticizing the legislation. Magyar Nemzet said that the law went against the spirit of Hungary’s constitution, which was enacted by the ruling party in 2010.

UPDATE: The last paragraph in this blog has been updated to reflect that the name of the pro-government daily is Magyar Nemzet.