Hungarian detentions evidence of government intimidation, say critics

Police officers patrol in Salgotarjan, Hungary, 15 April 2020. [EPA-EFE/Peter Komka]

Two men have been detained since Tuesday (12 May) on suspicion of ‘scaremongering’ after sharing posts critical of the government on Facebook, local media reported. While no charges were raised and the men were released, critics said these incidents are attempts at intimidation by authorities made possible by Hungary’s controversial emergency coronavirus law.

Hungarian MEP Katalin Cseh of the liberal Momentum party, of which one of the arrested men is a member, said that the incidents are sufficient to initiate infringement procedures against Hungary.

“We have objected on numerous occasions to the ‘scaremongering’ clause of the coronavirus law, which is contrary to the freedom of opinion and serves to intimidate journalists, civil society and hospital workers,” Cseh told EURACTIV.

Spreading falsehoods or true facts distorted in a way that could impede or thwart the effectiveness of defence measures against the coronavirus became punishable with 1 to 5 years of imprisonment under the coronavirus law, dubbed the ‘Authorisation Act.’

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“From these cases it is clear how Viktor Orbán has hollowed out democracy. On paper we can hold free elections and organise opposition parties but the government aims to intimidate people, discourage them from participating,” Cseh added.

International civil rights organisations have also expressed concern that police actions were aimed at silencing citizens. Andrew Stroehlein of Human Rights Watch wrote “the authorities in Hungary accept no criticism of the ‘dear leader’, so the police took the critic in.”

The police said in a statement  on Tuesday (12 May) that law enforcement officers detained a man early in the morning following a social media post where, according to the authorities, he wrote “that the country’s leadership had deliberately timed the lifting of the curfew with the peak of the coronavirus.”

PM Viktor Orbán announced on 19 April that the peak in coronavirus cases is expected to be reached on 3 May, while the first easing of restrictions occurred on 4 May.

Another incident occurred early on Wednesday (13 May), when a man was questioned by the police for sharing a post by an opposition politician protesting the forced evacuation of hospital beds, Magyar Narancs reported.

Public hospitals had to free up 60% of all available beds in April to have 36,000 beds ready, leading to instances of terminal and recovering patients discharged prematurely, local media reported. As of Wednesday, Hungary had 3341 reported cases of COVID-19.

In a statement published late on Wednesday, the police said it “takes note of the position of the prosecutor’s office,” which earlier said that no crimes were committed, and “will shape its further practice in light of this.”

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[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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