A woman facing away from the camera looks at a large display of magazines and newspapers.
A woman eyes the selection at a news agent in Budapest on January 6, 2011. A Budapest court has prevented a newspaper from writing about a company after the company's owners said the reporting violated EU data protection rules. (Reuters/Bernadett Szabo)

Hungarian court gags investigative report, citing EU data protection law

Berlin, October 21, 2020—A gag order issued by a Hungarian court has cited European Union data privacy rules to prevent the weekly Magyar Narancs newspaper from publishing an article on Budapest-based soft drinks company Hell Energy and its owners, according to the article’s author, Ákos Keller-Alánt, and local news reports.

The court in Budapest issued the preliminary injunction order citing the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on September 29, and the October 15 issue of Magyar Narancs omitted part of Keller-Alánt’s article, the media news website Media1 reported. Magyar Narancs said in a statement that the newspaper is challenging the order, noting that Hell Energy’s stature in Hungary and its receipt of state subsidies is of public interest.

“Private companies and their owners can challenge news reports in a civil court, but should not use data protection rules to evade media scrutiny and suppress information that belongs in the public domain,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator in New York. “Gag orders are not compatible with press freedom.”

Investigative journalist Keller-Alánt told CPJ by email that he sent 11 questions to the Hell Energy press department while reporting for Magyar Narancs on the company. The company did not respond, but asked the court to bar the newspaper from publishing any information related to his questions on data protection and privacy grounds, he said. The court’s preliminary ban affects information which is in the public domain through the internet, media reports, and company officials’ own statements, according to Keller-Alánt. “This court order creates a dangerous precedent which will have a chilling effect on investigative journalism in Hungary,” he told CPJ. Keller-Alánt has since left Magyar Narancs for another news outlet.

In an emailed statement received after publication, Kata Somos-Kunos, a senior PR manager for Hell Energy, told CPJ that “the application of the law is determined by an independent Hungarian court, whose judgments must be accepted by everyone.”

The injunction will expire after 30 days unless Hell Energy files a civil lawsuit, in which case the gag would remain in effect until the suit was resolved, a process which can take years, according to Attila Mráz, a lawyer with the independent Hungarian Civil Liberties Union who is representing Keller-Alánt in the case.

“Obviously, thousands of civil lawsuits are filed against the press in every democracy, and these sometimes involve legitimate retrospective sanctioning of the press. But using GDPR for pre-publication censorship is another level,” Mráz told CPJ.

In January, the Hungarian edition of Forbes said that the owners of Hell Energy had filed a lawsuit against the magazine for disclosing personal data by including them on a list of Hungary’s richest people. Following a preliminary court injunction, their identities were removed from the list in the online edition, and the print issue of the magazine that included it was recalled from newsstands, The Associated Press reported. A Forbes representative confirmed in an email to CPJ this week that the injunction remains in effect while the civil lawsuit is ongoing.

The GDPR regulation, which governs how companies in the EU protect individuals’ personal data, has also been cited in an investigation into the sources behind an investigative reporting project on corruption in Romania, CPJ reported in 2019.

[Editor’s note: The fifth paragraph has been updated with a statement from Hell Energy.]