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(London) - The Hungarian government’s interference with judicial independence and media freedom violates its international obligations and puts human rights at risk, Human Rights Watch said today. The government has provided no credible justification for the raft of regressive legal measures undermining human rights protections, the rule of law and the basic institutions that guarantee democracy.

The country’s new constitution, which came into force on January 1, 2012, and other laws adopted over the last year give the ruling Fidesz party, which holds a two-thirds majority in parliament, the ability to interfere arbitrarily with the judicial system and media, in violation of human rights law. Changes to election boundaries appear designed solely to ensure a continued parliamentary majority for the ruling party. The moves have provoked widespread international alarm, mass protests in Budapest and condemnation by former Hungarian dissidents.

“With the changes Hungary has made to its system for protecting rights and democracy, it would not meet the requirements to join the EU today,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The situation demands a resolute response by the EU, and the US as well.”

The European Commission should start infringement proceedings, Human Rights Watch said. The US should also review whether the fundamental changes to Hungary’s system breach its obligations as a NATO member. NATO requires members to have a “functioning democratic political system” and to respect common values of “individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

The changes to the legal system introduced by the new constitution and other new laws fundamentally undermine judicial independence, Human Rights Watch said. They create a new National Judiciary Office (NJO), whose president has the sole authority to appoint most judges. Together with the chief prosecutor, also a recent appointee, the NJO president can decide which judge should hear a case.

This effectively neutralizes the Constitutional Court, which has issued a series of critical rulings against the government, as a check on state power. The person appointed president of the Judiciary Office is the wife of a leading member of the Fidesz party.

The picture for the media is equally alarming. A controversial media regulation body established in January 2011 and staffed by ruling party loyalists can impose large fines on or close media outlets for failing to ensure “balanced” reporting, creating a chilling effect on free expression.

An independent talk radio station, Klubrádió, lost its license in December and will close in March. Large numbers of journalists working for the state broadcaster have been dismissed, ostensibly for efficiency but in some cases the dismissals appear to be linked to their objections to government interference in editorial matters.

On January 3, the European Commission said it was studying the constitution and other new laws to determine whether they comply with EU law, and the following day said that a high-level EU task force will do the same with the media law. On December 12, the Commission vice-president, Viviane Reding, wrote to the Hungarian government seeking urgent clarification about the judicial appointment issue and other issues in the new constitution. An intervention by the Commission in early 2011 on the media law failed to achieve significant results because infringement proceedings against Hungary over alleged breaches of EU law were dropped without real changes having been made.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called for a greater commitment to the independence of the judiciary and free press during a visit to Hungary in July, and the US ambassador to Hungary raised a series of critical questions about the changes in a December oped in the Hungarian weekly Heti Válasz.

Developments in Hungary have also drawn criticism from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s representative on freedom of the media, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe’s expert body on constitutional law (known as the “Venice Commission”) and Hungarian civil society organizations.

“The Hungarian government’s actions jeopardize the very foundations of a democratic society based on the rule of law – the right to criticize the government and the ability to challenge its excesses in the courts,” Ward said. “The removal of those checks on government power creates a serious risk of human rights abuse.”

Specific concerns include:

  • The Constitutional Court is now unable to review laws with budgetary implications, except in very narrowly defined circumstances. The number of judges on the court has been expanded, and the new judges appointed by the government have ties to the ruling party. At the same time, the ability of ordinary citizens to petition the court has been limited.
  • The retirement age for judges has been changed retroactively from 70 to 62, which has the effect of forcing hundreds of experienced judges out of office. A retroactive rule requiring Supreme Court judges to have five years of experience in the Hungarian courts has forced the president of the supreme court to step down, despite his 17 years of experience in the European Court of Human Rights, further reinforcing fears of political interference in the judiciary.
  • The new constitution vests the power to appoint new judges with a single politically appointed individual, the president of a new National Judiciary Office, who is   appointed for a nine-year term, with dismissal requiring a supermajority in Parliament. Appointments were previously made by National Judicial Council, which included judges, MPs, the chief prosecutor and the Minister of Justice. The new arrangement lacks the necessary independence to ensure that judicial appointments are made solely on the basis of merit and creates a risk that only people with ties to the ruling party will be appointed to the judiciary.
  • The National Judiciary Office president and chief prosecutor, also appointed by the ruling party, will have the power to decide which judges try a particular case, fundamentally undermining judicial independence.
  • The constitution also enshrines discrimination against people with disabilities, women and LGBT people. Human Rights Watch wrote to the Hungarian Prime Minister in May on this point.

The composition and scope of the Media Council, whose chair is appointed for a nine-year term and also can be dismissed only with a supermajority of  Parliament, raises concerns about media freedom. The intervention by the European Commission on the media law in January 2011 resulted in very limited changes to the law. The government has yet to implement a December ruling by the Hungarian Constitutional Court striking down part of the media law and limiting the Media Council’s role in regulating print and online media.

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