In a fresh attempt to silence critical voices, Hungary’s government has submitted a “defence of sovereignty” bill to parliament that will give a government controlled body broad powers to target civil society and independent media.
The bill purportedly aims to prevent the influence of foreign interests that threaten Hungary’s sovereignty or national security. But the bill’s vague wording would enable the government to target civil society organizations and independent media seeking to hold the government to account for investigation by deeming them a threat to “sovereignty” or “national security”.
The ruling party Fidesz made it clear in September the law is intended to be used against “left-wing journalists,” “pseudo-NGOs” and “dollar politicians.”
The draft law, which would amend the constitution, criminal code, and other laws, would establish an Office for the Defence of Sovereignty with broad powers to conduct investigations into any organization or person it deems or suspects to pose a threat, including by forcing the disclosure of sensitive data such as client information and medical records.
The president of the Office would be appointed by the president of the Republic after being nominated by the Prime Minister, currently Viktor Orban, raising concerns about of the independence of the body and the risk of politically motivated abuses of its authority.
The bill is the latest in a government campaign against civil society organizations and independent journalists, attempting to undermine their work by creating a climate of fear and intimidation. The Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner has condemned the draft law and called on Hungarian authorities to scrap it.
The draft law has parallels with the 2017 Lex NGO and 2018 Stop Soros law. Both targeted the operation of independent civil society groups and were later struck down by the EU Court of Justice, rulings the Hungarian government has failed to implement fully.
Hungary’s parliament should withdraw the current bill. If the law is adopted, the EU Commission should recognize it as an attack on democracy and the rule of law, and use its enforcement powers to press the Hungarian government to stop, including by keeping EU funds frozen until the government fully complies with its obligations under EU financial conditionality mechanisms.
Moreover, EU member states should move to the next step of rule of law scrutiny on Hungary by taking a vote to determine in the Council that Hungary’s continued actions pose a clear risk of a serious breach of EU values.