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Events of 2023

People take part in a demonstration against the Hungarian government's 'Status Law’ which may restrict teachers' independence while increasing their workloads, in Budapest, Hungary, June 1, 2023.

© 2023 REUTERS/Marton Monus

The government continued its attacks on rule of law and democratic institutions in 2023. Teacher protests over work conditions and salaries that started in September 2022 culminated in a two-day strike in March, to which the government responded with a new law weakening teachers’ professional autonomy. Opposition members throughout the year tried to dismantle police cordons erected around the Prime Minister’s Office to obstruct media access that had been ruled unlawful by a court.

The government extended the “state of danger” it originally declared in May 2022 after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, taking advantage of extraordinary powers to rule by decree and sidestep parliamentary process. Independent journalists and media outlets faced smear campaigns by public officials and pro-government media and obstacles in reporting, including in obtaining public records and meeting with ruling party politicians. Civil society organizations continued to be subjected to smear campaigns by government-aligned media and public officials.

Discrimination and vilification of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and Roma persisted. Unlawful pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers to Serbia continued, and access to the asylum procedure was close to impossible.

The European Union withheld funds to Hungary due to its rule of law abuses and continued its scrutiny of Hungary under the article 7 mechanism designed to hold accountable governments that may be in breach of EU founding values.

Attacks on Rule of Law and Public Institutions

In February and May, the government extended the “state of danger” it had declared a year earlier, which itself had replaced a Covid-19 “state of danger” declared in 2020. The resulting emergency powers enable the government to rule by decree and override any act of parliament. A separate emergency decree has been in force since 2015 over a “state of crisis due to mass migration.” The government has misused its excessive powers, among other things, to overrule judicial decisions and restrict teachers’ right to strike.

In December 2022, the EU froze delivery of so-called cohesion and Covid-19 recovery funds to Hungary due to rule of law abuses and listed 27 milestones, or prerequisites, the country needs to fulfill to unlock funds. In May 2023, parliament passed a law addressing some concerns about the independence of the judiciary in an effort to unlock EU funds. The law failed to fully comply with the milestones, including to guarantee the integrity of the parliamentary lawmaking process, the independence of the Kuria (Supreme Court), and the effective operations of the National Judicial Council and to remove obstacles currently preventing judges from seeking preliminary rulings from the EU Court of Justice (CJEU). The law also failed to address broader rule of law concerns, including the practice of limitless renewals of states of danger and political capture of the Constitutional Court. On December 13, the European Commission concluded that Hungary had met the conditions linked to judicial independence and announced it was unfreezing €10 billion in EU cohesion funds, while maintaining a freeze on €21 billion in other funds linked to persistent breaches by Hungarian authorities of rule of law principles.

In response to teachers’ months-long protests and a two-day strike in March demanding better working conditions and salaries, the government introduced what has been dubbed a “revenge law,” increasing teachers’ working hours and workloads and allowing the government to relocate them at its discretion. In May, police used tear gas during protests made up largely of high school students, the majority under 18.

In February, the Hungarian parliament, in an expedited procedure, adopted a motion that limits the power of the Hungarian Chamber of Doctors, an independent advocacy body, by abolishing mandatory membership and transferring the power to adjudicate ethical cases to a government body also in charge of creating a new ethical code. The emergency motion was preceded by a dispute between the government and the chamber concerning on-call work and low salaries.

Freedom of Media

Independent journalists and media outlets continued to face obstacles and limited access to public officials and members of government as well as to public information, as authorities largely ignored freedom of information requests.

Between April and August, at least 40 Hungarian news websites, mainly independent outlets, were subjected to repeated cyber attacks, causing websites to crash or slow down due to server overload, leaving readers unable to access information and news for hours at a time.

In late March, four independent weekly papers sued the government, at the national and EU levels, over unequal distribution of state advertising in local media. The media outlets filed a complaint with the European Competition Network, stating that the government places a disproportionate number of ads in pro-government media.

In September, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that Hungary had violated the right to freedom of expression of the then-independent outlet Index when Hungarian courts ruled in favor of then-president Janos Ader, who had sued the outlet for defamation.

In its March 2023 report, the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists found Hungary in violation of press freedom for allowing state intelligence to use Pegasus spyware to surveil at least five journalists and media owners. In February, then-Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga refused to meet the European Parliament PEGA committee set up to investigate infringement of EU law in relation to Pegasus spyware use.

Independent journalists continue to experience smear campaigns by public officials and pro-government media accusing them of treason, implying they are funded by United States liberal interests or acting on behalf of George Soros.

Attacks on Civil Society

Smear attacks by government officials and pro-government media on civil society organizations continued in 2023. In January, Minister of Regional Development and EU Funds Tibor Navracsics blamed the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and other rights groups for an EU Commission move to stop new grants from the ERASMUS exchange program to Hungarian universities that operate, or are managed by, public trust foundations. The move followed a decision by EU member states to suspend funding to such trusts over concerns about lack of transparency and conflicts of interest.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The government continued its attacks on LGBT people in 2023.

In July, the government proposed a bill that would exclude transgender women from a women-only pension scheme. The bill was introduced in response to a local court ruling making a transgender woman eligible for a benefit available to women who have worked 40 years but not yet reached the retirement age. At time of writing, the bill was pending before parliament.

Also in July, the Consumer Protection Authority fined Lira, one of the country’s largest bookstores, 12 million Hungarian Forints (about US$36,000) for failing to wrap in plastic foil the British webcomic Heartstopper, which includes LGBT content. The government body said Lira had breached the 2021 anti-LGBT law prohibiting display of LGBT content to children, a law that the European Commission referred to the CJEU in July 2022 for violating the fundamental rights of LGBT people.

In February 2023, the politically compromised Constitutional Court issued a ruling that continues to block applications by transgender people for legal gender recognition submitted after the 2021 ban on legal gender recognition. The ruling creates two categories of transgender people in Hungary: those who applied early enough to pursue gender recognition and those who did not and are thus ineligible to legally change their gender.

Women’s and Girls’ Reproductive Rights

Women and girls face increasing and burdensome restrictions on accessing legal abortion, including obligatory counseling sessions prior to an abortion and a requirement to listen to the “fetal heartbeat.” Refugee women and girls from Ukraine have also encountered barriers to accessing legal abortion. Curbs on reproductive rights resulted in an increase in women and girls seeking abortion care abroad.

Discrimination against Roma

Discrimination against Roma in education, health care, and employment remained a serious problem in 2023.

In March, the ECtHR found Hungary in violation of the right to non-discrimination in the case of a Roma boy who had been racially segregated in school. The court awarded the applicant €7,000 in damages and ordered the government to develop a policy to end segregation in the school.

Migration and Asylum

Access to the asylum procedure remained virtually impossible following a new 2020 law preventing asylum seekers from lodging protection claims in Hungary. A CJEU decision in June stated that Hungary was violating EU asylum laws by forcing people to lodge protection claims in Serbia and Ukraine.

According to police data cited by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 436,310 crossings from Ukraine to Hungary took place between February 24, 2022, and September 3, 2023. By July 2023, 37,553 people had registered for Temporary Protection under the EU Temporary Protection Directive triggered by the war in Ukraine.

Pushbacks to Serbia, sometimes violent, continued. According to official police statistics, between January and August 2023, police made over 58,000 “arrests and escorts across the fence,” a euphemism for unlawful pushbacks.

In three separate judgments in May, the ECtHR ruled against Hungary for its inhumane migration control and asylum policies. In two cases, the court stated that Hungary had unlawfully and arbitrarily detained asylum seekers. In the third case, the court held that Hungary had unlawfully pushed a 14-year-old unaccompanied Pakistani child back to Serbia without examining his situation or providing him the option of filing an asylum claim. In October, in two other judgments, the court ruled against Hungary concerning its unlawful pushback practices, and in a third judgment, it found that investigations into police violence during a pushback was ineffective. Also in October, the court handed down three judgments ruling that the det