Berlin, May 28, 2021 — Hungarian authorities should not contest journalist Júlia Halász’s appeal of a recent criminal defamation verdict, and should reform the country’s laws to decriminalize speech, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On May 6, an appellate court in Budapest upheld a lower court’s November 12, 2020, ruling to convict Halász, a reporter for independent news website 444, on a criminal defamation charge, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview, and news reports.
The court issued Halász a reprimand, meaning that the conviction will remain on her criminal record for three years but does not otherwise carry any penalty, according to Hungarian law. Criminal defamation convictions can carry up to two years in prison, according to the Hungarian criminal code.
Halász told CPJ that she filed an appeal, but no hearing date had been set.
The charges stem from a May 2017 article by Halász accusing László Szabó, a Budapest city district councilor with the ruling Fidesz party, of harassing her while she attempted to cover him at a party forum, according to those sources.
“Hungarian authorities should not be in the business of pursuing criminal cases against journalists for their writing,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Gulnoza Said, in New York. “Authorities should not contest journalist Júlia Halász’s appeal, and Hungary should scrap its criminal defamation laws; they have no place in a democracy.”
In her article, Halász wrote that Szabó accused her of filming a meeting without permission, grabbed her microphone, forcibly ejected her from the building, and deleted photos from her phone. Halász told CPJ that she previously filed a criminal complaint against Szabó for that harassment, but police closed the investigation on October 5, 2017, due to lack of evidence.
Halász said she was concerned that Szabó may also sue her for civil defamation damages, and would be able to cite the criminal verdict in his case.
In an article following the first verdict in November 2020, 444 editor-in-chief Péter Uj called the court proceedings an “absurd comedy,” noting that the witnesses were all personal friends of Szabó and local Fidesz party members and sympathizers. He also criticized the police investigation into Halász’s criminal complaint, saying that officers did not question Szabó even as a witness.
After publication of this article, Szabó replied to CPJ’s request for comment with a lengthy email but did not directly answer CPJ’s questions about whether police questioned him in the case or whether he would continue to pursue legal proceedings against the journalist. Earlier, Szabó told the local newspaper Magyar Nemzet that he accepted the court’s conviction of Halász, saying it proved that she had made “unfounded accusations.”
CPJ also emailed the press department of the 11th District police in Budapest for comment, but did not receive any response.
Editor’s note: The penultimate paragraph of this article has been updated to include Szabó’s response to CPJ.