A nurse is seen at the Szent Laszlo hospital in Budapest, Hungary, on April 22, 2020. Authorities recently bypassed a court order meant to grant journalists greater access to public hospitals. (AFP/Zoltan Balogh)

Hungarian government bypasses court order allowing journalists to report from public hospitals

Berlin, February 11, 2022 — Hungarian authorities should not grant state media preferential access to public facilities, and should ensure that independent news outlets can cover the COVID-19 pandemic freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

On February 4, the Hungarian government’s executive branch issued a decree empowering the Operational Corps, the government pandemic management body, to adjudicate journalists’ requests to report from public hospitals and health facilities, according to news reports and a copy of that decree.

Previously, on January 27, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court ruled that the Ministry of Human Resources, which oversees public hospitals, had illegally banned all journalists except those from state-run and state-funded outlets from accessing public hospitals during the pandemic, and ordered the government to allow hospital administrators to make access decisions on a case-by-case basis, those reports said.

By empowering another government body with that decision-making power, the decree bypasses that court decision, according to those reports.

“Hungarian authorities should revoke a recent government decree that could be used to restrict independent journalists from covering the COVID-19 pandemic in public health facilities,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Hungarian courts have already ruled that journalists must be able to access such facilities; this decree not only limits journalists’ work, but shows the length the government will go to control press coverage.”

The Budapest-Capital Regional Court ruling stemmed from a lawsuit by the  independent news website Telex, together with the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, after Telex made more than 50 requests to report from various public hospitals in Hungary, all of which were denied, reports said.

HCLU lawyer Emese Pásztor told Telex that the civil liberties union is examining the possibilities of challenging the decree. “Respect for the rule of law means that the authorities should respect court decisions and not overrule them,” she said.

On March 31, 2021, 28 independent newsrooms signed an open letter accusing the government of putting lives at risk by barring the media from covering the full extent of the COVID-19 outbreak. In that letter, journalists said that they had been blocked from accessing hospitals and speaking to staff members, making it impossible to alert the public to the crisis. Following the publication of that letter, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in an interview with public broadcaster M1 that “it is not the time to enter hospitals and shoot bogus videos and produce fake news.”

After the publication of this article, the Hungarian government’s international spokesperson, Zoltán Kovács, responded to CPJ’s emailed request for comment by saying that, in hospitals during the pandemic, “curing patients is important and not reporting.”

Independent journalists have described to CPJ the challenges of reporting on COVID-19 in Hungary’s increasingly repressive media environment.

[Editor’s note: This article has been updated in its ninth paragraph to include Kovácsreply to CPJ.]