May 16, 2013

Summary

Since its election victory in 2010, the ruling Fidesz party has used its supermajority in parliament to make major changes to the country’s legal framework, including adopting a new constitution, in ways that weaken legal checks on its authority, interfere with media freedom, and otherwise undermine human rights protection in the country.

The new constitution and related laws entered into force in January 2012 and have been amended several times since their introduction, most recently in March 2013. This report assesses the impact of all these changes to the Hungarian legal framework. It examines their effects on judicial independence and the administration of justice; the limitations they impose on the powers of the Constitutional Court, on political participation, and on religious freedom; and the way they interfere with the rights of women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, and the homeless.

Human Rights Watch’s research during 2012 and 2013 indicates that the new constitution and other legal changes have curbed the independence of the judiciary and the administration of justice, forced nearly 300 judges into early retirement, and imposed limitations on the Constitutional Court’s ability to review laws and complaints. Together these changes have undermined an important check on the government.

Legislation and policy introduced by the government since 2010 has also had an impact on media freedom. The government has passed a series of media laws that, among other changes, created a new media regulator known as the Media Council headed by a political appointee with close ties to the government.

Independent media outlets have told Human Rights Watch that they now conduct self-censorship as a result of unclear regulations and feel the pressure of declining public and private advertising revenue. The editorial content of public television has been subject to political interference, and editors and journalists who opposed that interference have lost their jobs as part of a larger number of redundancies justified on the grounds of restructuring.

Hundreds of religious groups have been stripped of their status as “churches” under domestic law as a result of the new constitution. The constitution also contains provisions that discriminate against LGBT people and limit women’s rights.

The new constitution also includes a provision that restricts voting rights for people with “limited mental capacity.” A change to the voter registration rules making mandatory registration a prerequisite for voting was struck down by the Constitutional Court as potentially restricting the right to vote and has been abandoned.

The government also introduced a law making homelessness a crime, with repeat offenders liable to imprisonment, large fines, or both. During 2012, over 2,000 homeless people were fined under the previous law regulating criminalization of homelessness.

Despite the limitations imposed on it in 2012, Hungary’s Constitutional Court has been a crucial check on the government, ruling against the law criminalizing homelessness, against making voter registration mandatory, against laws imposing a narrow, exclusionary definition of family, and against a law that had led to many religious organizations being deregistered as churches.

In March 2013 the government introduced further changes to the constitution that not only curbed the power of the Constitutional Court to review substantive provisions of the constitution, but also added provisions that enable the criminalization of homelessness, restrict the definition of family, and uphold the arbitrary registration process for churches. These changes have effectively reversed the court’s rulings and prevent it from looking at them again. In April 2013 the ombudsman requested that the Constitutional Court review the constitutionality of the Fourth Amendment.

The actions of the government in Hungary have been the subject of considerable international criticism. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and an ad hoc Council of Europe expert panel issued authoritative opinions in 2012 on the administration of courts, the forced retirement of judges, the deregistration of churches, and the media law package, noting serious concerns about Hungary’s compliance with its obligations under international human rights law and including concrete recommendations to remedy the situation. In April 2013 the Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council Europe recommended that Hungary be put under a monitoring procedure. 

European Union Commissioners Viviane Reding and Neelie Kroes have issued strong statements both on the incompatibility of the early forced retirement of judges with EU law and on the restrictions on freedom of expression and the media. The EU Court of Justice has ruled that the forced retirement of judges constitutes age discrimination. International scrutiny of Hungary has intensified since the March 2013 constitutional changes, which attracted criticism from the European Commission, the United States and German governments, and the Council of Europe.

To date, the Hungarian government has not complied with the majority of recommendations made by the Council of Europe and the EU.

The Hungarian government has a responsibility to bring legislation and practices in line with the human rights standards at the core of the EU and the Council of Europe. Without concerted reform by the Hungarian government and sustained pressure from the EU and the Council of Europe, these constitutional and legislative changes will have long-lasting adverse effects on fundamental freedoms and human rights.