Hungarian parliament
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks at the Hungarian parliament on September 25, 2023, in Budapest. Local media outlets warn that a bill creating a Sovereignty Protection Authority, which parliament passed on December 12 and is awaiting President Katalin Novák's signature, could stifle independent journalism. (Photo credit: AFP/Attila Kisbenedek)

Hungary’s Russian-style national sovereignty bill threatens independent media

Berlin, December 15, 2023—Hungary’s president should decline to approve a law creating a Sovereignty Protection Authority, which local media outlets have warned could be used to stifle independent journalism supported by overseas donors, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

On Tuesday, December 12, Hungary’s parliament passed a bill to establish a government authority with broad powers to investigate foreign interference in public life. Parliament has until December 17 to send it to President Katalin Novák, who then has another five days to approve the bill or send it back to lawmakers for consideration, according to Hungary’s constitution.

Although the law does not explicitly mention journalists or the media, the head of the parliamentary group of the ruling Fidesz party, Máté Kocsis, said in a September press conference before the bill was introduced that it would target “those who are selling out our country abroad in exchange for dollars,” including “left-wing journalists,” “pseudo-NGOs,” and politicians.

“Under the pretext of transparency and protecting national interests, Hungarian lawmakers have introduced new legislation with the publicly declared goal to target journalists. The bill could bring a new level of state-sanctioned pressure and no doubt chill independent reporting,” said CPJ’s Europe representative Attila Mong. “The bill bears the hallmarks of a Russian-style foreign agent law and has no place in an EU member state. President Novák should not sign it into law, and instead send it back to lawmakers for revision.”

The Sovereignty Protection Authority will identify individuals and organizations benefiting from foreign funding it suspects of undermining the country’s national sovereignty and label them publicly in its reports as serving foreign interests, according to media reports and CPJ’s review of the bill.The authority will not have legal powers to sanction individuals and organizations, but it can suggest law enforcement and other authorities launch criminal or administrative investigations into suspected illegal foreign interference.

In a joint statement published on Wednesday, 10 independent media outlets called for the law to be rejected. All information about the outlets’ operations, including their finances, are transparent and publicly available, the statement said, with “no hidden funds or subsidies.” The media organizations warned that the bill would only serve to threaten them with investigations, make their operations “difficult or even impossible,” and “severely restrict press freedom.” If the law goes into effect, the Hungarian media would still be able to continue to receive grants from foreign countries, including from the EU and overseas.

In 2017, the government passed legislation requiring organizations to disclose foreign funding, but had to revoke the law in 2021after a European Court of Justice decision. Independent journalists have warned that similar legislation could be revived; in an interview with CPJ in February 2023, Tamás Bodoky, editor-in-chief of investigative outlet Átlátszó, said that campaign to clamp down on foreign funding was being waged “at the highest level” of Hungary’s government.

Since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán came back to power in 2010, his right-wing government has systematically eroded protections for independent media, including through the forcible closure of once-independent media outlets, the use of COVID-19 restrictions to further control access to information, as well as lawsuits, police questionings, and the use of spyware. Following Orbán’s landslide election victory in 2022, the country’s independent journalists braced themselves for an even harsher media climate.

CPJ emailed the office of Zoltán Kovács, the Hungarian government’s international spokesperson, as well as the office of the country’s president for comment, but received no reply.