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UN review of Hungary shows country 'treats human rights as a public enemy'

Hungary's Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, talks to the press outside the EU leaders' summit in March. The country's poor press freedom record and policies on asylum seekers have been criticized by the U.N. (AFP/John Thys)

On May 9, a stern review of Hungary's conduct in human rights issues and press freedom was released at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The report, drafted by the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, listed concerns from U.N. member states about the controversial policies of Viktor Orbán's government on asylum seekers and hate speech, as well as the poor state of press freedom.

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"Whatever the dismal assessment of Hungary's human rights record in separate areas such as refugees, NGOs, media freedoms, judicial independence, and many others, the frightening truth is that those compartmental deteriorations are based on the government's official treatment of the very concept [of] human rights as a sort of public enemy," Miklós Haraszti, a Hungarian human rights advocate and a former OSCE representative on freedom of the media, told CPJ.

Philippe Dam, Human Rights Watch's advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, did not mince his words either. "The report offers a disturbing picture of just how low Hungary has stooped," he said in an article posted on the group's website.

The Universal Periodic Review is a U.N. mechanism that surveys the human rights performance of member states and presents a list of recommendations on how a country can better fulfil its human rights obligations. The report on Hungary, which had 221 recommendations, devoted significant space to the state of press freedom in Hungary, highlighting in particular concerns over the lack of pluralism or an independent press.

The release of the report received little coverage in Hungary's press, a journalist with whom CPJ spoke said. "It is not surprising that the Hungarian press did not pick up the report," Tamás Bodoky, an independent journalist and head of the nonprofit investigative journalism center, Atlatszo, told CPJ. "Countless previous foreign condemnations of the Hungarian government's increasing hostility toward independent media, civil society, or the refugees, did not impact government policies, only provoked more and more verbal aggression from the government and pro-government media outlets toward those who do not share Prime Minister Orbán's goals and ideas."

Bodoky said that the Hungarian government has plenty of channels to suppress and publicly vilify dissent. "The Hungarian media landscape is increasingly dominated by outlets either sponsored by or affiliated with pro-government circles, while the independent media are weakening and losing ground constantly," he said. Bodoky added that being an independent, critical media outlet in Hungary today is a role that "can earn you only hate-speech attacks."

Since the 2010 electoral victory of the conservative Fidesz party--a leading member of the European Parliament's largest political group, the European People's Party--press freedom groups have been documenting what CPJ's deputy executive director Rob Mahoney described in a 2014 mission journal as the "creeping authoritarianism" in Hungary. Underlining the takeover of state media, the installation of a Media Council packed with ruling party's appointees, and soft censorship through the partisan use of state advertising, Mahoney wrote, "The repression is achieved through a combination of regulations and cronyism and a strategy of divide and rule."

Non-governmental organizations are invited to make submissions to the Universal Periodic Review but, because it is a state-driven exercise, these organizations expect that it will mainly be like-minded states that relay criticism and recommendations. The U.S., for instance, expressed concern in the review over "steps [in Hungary] that erode checks and balances." Recommendations from EU member states were also scrutinized by human rights and press freedom groups, because the attitude of these countries is crucial in calling Hungary to account under the EU treaties and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Since the first constitutional and legal changes were introduced by Orbán's government, European non-governmental organizations have been pushing for a more assertive and principled position on the part of the EU, such as triggering the Rule of Law mechanism. CPJ, which covered the declining situation for Hungary's media in its 2015 report on the EU and press freedom, called on the EU to establish an enforceable Rule of Law mechanism that would deal more effectively with member states that backtrack on their commitments.

The current EU Rule of Law Framework, which is being used to tackle the Polish government, has a number of stages including monitoring the state in question, starting a dialogue, and making recommendations which, if ignored, can lead to the triggering of Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, the so called "nuclear option." If this option is taken, voting rights of a member state can be suspended, in effect excluding the country from the European club. But the process is long and unpredictable.

Hungary has so far been able to block such an initiative by making cosmetic changes to its legislation and, above all, by relying on the support of its political allies in the European Parliament, member states, and even in the Commission, which is supposed to act as the guardian of the treaties.

Several EU members were up to the challenge of speaking the truth to Orbán. In the review's recommendations Sweden asked Hungary to "remedy the shortcomings in the media law as expressed by the Venice Commission," referring to the group of constitutional experts within the Council of Europe that, in a June 2015 opinion, criticized Hungary's Media Council and content-based regulation. France underlined the "necessary measures to promote media pluralism and fight threats against freedom of the press and freedom of expression." The Netherlands insisted that Orbán's government "amend the media law in line with previous recommendations to ensure that all media laws are in line with the right to freedom of opinion and expression." And the Czech Republic requested that Hungary "take concrete steps to promote pluralism of the media and their independent work, including the exercise of their watchdog function."

Hungary has until September to respond to the Universal Periodic Review report by providing information on what it has been doing to implement the recommendations. On May 9, Hungary's permanent representative to the U.N. in Geneva, Zsuzsanna Horváth, welcomed the review "as an extremely useful exercise, strengthening Hungary's efforts to advance democracy, human rights and the rule of law."

Orbán's government is also expecting the results of a European Citizens' Initiative. This initiative, launched in October 2015 by European civil society organizations, calls for the "the Commission to propose to trigger Article 7 of the treaty for alleged breaches of the EU's fundamental values by Hungary." On November 30, 2015, the European Commission acknowledged the legal admissibility of the proposal, opening up a one-year process of collecting signatures in support of the proposal. "If--and only if--," as the Commission put it, "a registered ECI gathers the signatures of one million validated statements of support from at least seven member states, the Commission must decide whether or not to act, and explain the reasons for that choice." These non-governmental organizations are determined to prove that EU Commissioner for Justice Vĕra Jourová was wrong when she said in the European Parliament last December that although there were concerns, she did not see "any systemic threat to democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary."

[CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova contributed to this report.]

EDITOR'S NOTE: The fifth paragraph of this blog post has been updated to correct the spelling of the Hungarian nonprofit investigative journalism center, Atlatszo.

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