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Human Rights Developments

Despite improvements in Hungary's human rights situation in recent years, abuses continued to be reported during 1994, including police brutality and restraints on the independence of the press. More generally, during the electoral campaign the then-government attempted to interfer with the broadcast media and to limit political opponents' access to state-owned television and radio.

Human Rights Watch/Helsinki received several reports during 1994 of Hungarian police mistreatment of individuals in custody. For example, on January 19, police officers in the town of Szavasgede reportedly detained and mistreated two men, Jozsef Palinkas and Peter Herman, the latter an activist with the Green Alternative, an environmental organization that had been opposing construction of an incinerator near the town. Both men were seriously injured in detention. In addition, Palinkas was reportedly forced to sign a written statement that implicated Herman in an assault that had allegedly occurred a week earlier; members of Palinkas' family were also forced to give statements that implicated Herman in the assault. All retracted their statements at a later date. Human rights groups expressed concern that the police had fabricated the charges of assault against Peter Herman and his friend in an effort to intimidate him and to interfere with his right to free expression.

After a soccer game in Budapest on June 16, police in the capital reportedly beat fans for no apparent reason. Minister of the Interior Imre Konya expressed shock at the police officers' conduct and ordered an immediate investigation.

The May elections, which resulted in a resounding victory for the Hungarian Socialist Party (HSP), were generally considered free and fair. Although the HSP obtained an absolute majority, it formed a coalition government with the Alliance of Free Democrats, the largest opposition party. During the election campaign, there were allegations of pro-government bias at the state television and radio. In early March, the government dismissed 129 radio journalists from the state-run Hungarian radio. The government denied that the dismissals were motivated by political considerations, claiming instead that financial restraints had made it necessary to reduce the radio staff. But a statement by then-Acting Director Laszlo Csucs announcing the dismissals suggested otherwise. According to the Wall Street Journal, Csucs said, "The roots of Hungarian Radio have always been as a virtual fortress of communist journalists," and accused the programming staff of "smuggl[ing] in their ideological commitments," and "sabotag[ing] my instructions."

These political struggles inside the broadcast media were part of an ongoing "media war" in Hungary. As Human Rights Watch/Helsinki reported in 1993, a moratorium on the privatization of radio and television was imposed by the former communist government in 1989 to prevent the establishment of private radio and television stations until comprehensive legislation on the media could be enacted. However, the political parties and government could not agree on a law to regulate the media and, thus, the moratorium has remained in effect, preventing a diversification of the views that are broadcast. On August 23, 1994, the Hungarian parliament completed work on the draft media law regulating Hungarian television and radio, which was expected to be debated and voted on before the end of the year.

In 1994 Hungary was increasingly confronted with pressures related to migration and refugees, and responded with new legislation. Refugees from other East European countries, as well as from Asia and Africa, either used Hungary as a transit to Germany and other West European countries or, because of the tightening of asylum laws in the west, applied for asylum in Hungary. A comprehensive immigration law went into effect on May 1, establishing a legal framework to regulate the status of foreigners. The new law allowed certain refugees, whose status had previously been unclear, to apply for Hungarian citizenship after three years. The law also provided that no migrant could be kept in a camp for more than five days without a court order, and that those with criminal records being kept in camps should be segregated from the other migrants. However, the law also allowed the police greater powers, for example, to go to foreigners' homes, review their papers, and verify their legal status. The law was criticized by the Council of Europe for violating the European Convention on Human Rights' prohibition against discrimination because it required certain foreigners to undergo testing for AIDS and provided that a positive test can be grounds for denying an asylum application.

The Right to Monitor

Human Rights Watch/Helsinki was not aware of any attempt by the government to impede human rights observers in their investigations and reporting during 1994.

U.S. Policy

During 1994, there were several high-level meetings between the governments of the United States and Hungary, including a meeting in January between then-Prime Minister Peter Boross and President Clinton. These meetings focused on the Partnership for Peace Initiative, which Hungary welcomed but viewed as a stepping-stone to possible future membership in NATO.

The only significant comment on human rights in Hungary was found in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993. The country report was generally accurate and comprehensive in its portrayal of the human rights situation in Hungary. For example, the report discussed the specific problems of the Roma minority in Hungary and concluded that "there is still widespread popular prejudice against the Gypsies. Gypsies are generally assumed to be untrustworthy and treated as such, including by police . . ."

The Work of

Human Rights Watch/Helsinki

Human Rights Watch/Helsinki devoted its efforts in Hungary during 1994 to keeping pressure on the government to guarantee equal access to the state-run broadcast media, which were critically important especially during the election campaign. Two months before the May elections, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki and the Human Rights Watch Free Expression Project sent a letter to then-Prime Minister Peter Boross expressing concern about, among other things, the dismissal of two well-respected independent persons who had been appointed to serve as presidents of, respectively, Hungarian Television and Hungarian Radio, and about what appeared to be political bias in radio and television programming and in government assumption of control over the budgets of these institutions. This effort is part of an ongoing strategy by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki in several East European countries to press for new media legislation that would insulate state radio and television from political control and would allow for the allocation of new franchises on a nondiscriminatory basis.

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