Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and the media were active and expressed a wide range of views, although there were some formal restrictions on content related to “hate speech” and allegations that government action helped consolidate media outlets in the hands of progovernment owners.
Freedom of Expression: The law provides that any person who publicly incites hatred against any national, ethnic, racial, or religious group or certain other designated groups of the population may be prosecuted and convicted of a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. The constitution includes hate speech provisions to “protect the dignity of the Hungarian nation or of any national, ethnic, racial, or religious community.” The public denial of, expression of doubt about, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes of the National Socialist (Nazi) and communist regimes is prohibited by law and is punishable by a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The law also prohibits as a petty offense the wearing, exhibiting, or promoting of the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, the symbols of the Arrow Cross, the hammer and sickle, or the five-pointed red star in a way that harms human dignity or the memory of the victims of dictatorships. Judicial remedies exist for damage to individuals and communities that results from hate speech.
According to the Action and Protection Foundation (TEV) of the World Zionist Organization, in the first four months of the year there were 23 instances of anti-Semitic hate acts, including 15 that qualified as hate crimes, of which nine were categorized as hate speech. No police reports were filed. In June a man was sentenced to a 150,000 forint ($600) fine in a nonbinding court ruling for denying the Holocaust in a Facebook comment in 2016.
In 2017 parliament passed a law prohibiting discounted pricing of billboard space for state-financed entities, including political parties. Several opposition parties challenged the law in the Constitutional Court, charging that it was designed to limit their freedom of expression. On December 12, the Constitutional Court rejected the legal challenge.
On July 25, parliament passed a law imposing a 25 percent tax on all civil entities that aid or promote illegal immigration, including groups that support media campaigns deemed to aid or promote immigration. Several NGOs sharply criticized the law, noting that it penalizes the public expression of opinions different from that of the government (see also section 5).
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without formal restriction. Media consolidation resulted in further expansion of government-friendly enterprises and reduction in other media voices, primarily in print and broadcast media. In April, citing financial problems, a prominent businessman and political opponent of Prime Minister Orban closed several of his government-critical media outlets and transferred others to a government-friendly owner. In November the owners of 476 government-friendly media outlets, comprising what experts estimate as approximately 85 percent of all Hungarian media outlets nationally, transferred these outlets to the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), led by Fidesz media expert Gabor Liszkay. On December 5, Prime Minister Orban signed a decree declaring KESMA of strategic national interest and exempting it from scrutiny by the country’s Competition Authority, and by extension, its Media Council. In light of the developments with KESMA, media watchdog Mertek Media Monitor said it made “little sense to speak about freedom of the press in Hungary,” claiming KESMA would enhance the ability of government-friendly media to further squeeze independent media out of the market.
In its final report on the parliamentary elections, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) concluded that “the ability of contestants to compete on an equal basis was significantly compromised by the government’s excessive spending on public information advertisements that amplified the ruling coalition’s campaign message,” and that “the media is largely dependent on their owners’ financial subsidies and/or government advertisements. Government advertisements are distributed to selected media outlets through restricted public tenders and lack sufficient transparency and robust audit measures. Such a media environment limits space for critical reporting and pluralism” (see section 3, Elections and Political Participation).
The National Media and Info-Communications Authority (NMHH), subordinate to parliament, is the central state administrative body for regulating the media. The authority of the NMHH includes overseeing the operation of broadcast and media markets as well as “contributing to the execution of the government’s policy in the areas of frequency management and telecommunications.” The NMHH president serves as the chair of the five-member Media Council, the decision-making body of the NMHH that supervises broadcast, cable, online, and print media content and spectrum management. The NMHH consisted exclusively of persons named by the governing parties.
The state news agency, MTI, is mandated by law to provide balanced, objective, nonpartisan coverage. Media watchdogs and independent outlets criticized the state media for concealing facts and opinions unfavorable to the government.
National Assembly speaker Laszlo Kover’s 2010 ban on parliamentary access by several dozen persons, mainly journalists, for alleged violation of parliamentary rules remained in force. In May Kover informed the reporters he banned from entering parliament at any point during the 2014-18 parliamentary cycle that they would not be allowed to enter parliament to cover the inaugural parliamentary session. At year’s end, the 2016 appeal by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) to the ECHR to overturn Kover’s decision remained pending. The OSCE representative on freedom of the media stated that “accrediation for an event should not be used as a tool to curb the content of critical reporting.”
Violence and Harassment: There were no reports of violence against journalists or of physical or legal harassment. Nevertheless, government officials and government-aligned media regularly referred to independent journalists or media as the “Soros media” or “foreign agents.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides content regulations and standards for journalistic rights, ethics, and norms that are applicable to all media, including news portals and online publications. It prohibits inciting hatred against nations; communities; ethnic, linguistic, or other minorities; majority groups; and churches or religious groups. It provides for maintaining the confidentiality of sources with respect to procedures conducted by courts or authorities.
The law mandates that every media service provider that delivers news to the public must report in a balanced manner, and it states in particular that public service media providers should pursue balanced, accurate, detailed, objective, and responsible news and information services. These requirements were widely disregarded, including by the public media.
The Media Council may impose fines for violations of content regulations, including on media services that violate prohibitions on inciting hatred or violating human dignity or regulations governing the protection of minors. The council may impose fines of up to 200 million forints ($800,000), depending on the nature of the infringement, type of media service, and audience size. It may also suspend the right to broadcast for up to one week. Defendants may appeal Media Council decisions but must appeal separately to prevent implementation of fines while the parties litigate the substantive appeal.
As of September 1, the Media Council had issued 205 resolutions concerning various alleged violations of the media law, imposing fines totaling nearly 8.8 million forints ($35,000) on 83 media service providers. The most common citations were for unlawful advertising methods violating the dignity of a person or group.
Libel/Slander Laws: Journalists reporting on an event may be judged criminally responsible for making or reporting false statements. Both individuals and media outlets may be sued for libel for their published statements or for publicizing libelous statements made by others. Plaintiffs may litigate in both civil and criminal courts.
Public officials and individual public figures continued to use libel and defamation laws in response to criticism from citizens and journalists, and the HCLU reported the libel laws had a chilling effect on journalists reporting about politicians.
After the April 8 parliamentary elections, three opposition politicians successfully sued multiple progovernment media outlets for libel, accusing them of deliberately spreading false information about them before the election.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet and generally did not censor online content. There were no substantiated reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
In cooperation with internet service providers, the NMHH maintained a nonpublic database to block websites that violate the law, including content-related legislation. The system also blocked websites suspected of violating such laws, based on preliminary court rulings.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 76.8 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
In 2017 parliament used a fast-track procedure to amend the higher education law regarding the operation of foreign universities in the country. The amendment includes a provision requiring universities from non-EU countries operating in Hungary to have a physical presence in their countries of origin, operate under an intergovernmental agreement between Hungary and the other country of accreditation, and ensure that the name of the university in Hungarian reflects an exact translation of the name in the country of origin. Three U.S.-accredited universities active in the country were found to violate the new requirements: Central European University (CEU), McDaniel College, and Boston University. In 2017 the government signed an agreement allowing the continued operation of McDaniel College.
In 2017 a legal opinion by the Venice Commission called on the government to exempt foreign universities already operating in the country from the obligation to provide education in their country of origin and challenged other provisions. Opposition MPs also filed a suit challenging aspects of the law in the Constitutional Court. The European Commission referred Hungary to the European Court of Justice, arguing that the higher education amendment violates EU rules on the freedom of education and enterprise, provision of services, and scientific activity. The lawsuit remained pending at year’s end. On June 5, the Constitutional Court postponed its proceedings to review the legislation, stating it would wait for the ruling of the European Court of Justice.
In October 2017 parliament voted to extend until the end of 2018 the deadline for foreign higher education institutions to comply with the amended higher education law. Government officials pointed to the extension as responding in part to the Venice Commission’s opinion. CEU established a presence and conducted courses at Bard College in New York, and the Hungarian government and State of New York negotiated the required intergovernmental agreement. The government argued, however, that CEU had not sufficiently complied with the provisions of the law and declined to sign the agreement that would allow it to stay. On December 3, CEU announced it would move its U.S.-accredited programs to Vienna.
A government decree effective as of October 13 eliminated gender studies from the list of master’s degree programs (both state- and private-funded) that could be accredited in Hungary. The decree stated that enrolled students could finish their studies, but gender studies programs can accept no new students in the academic year beginning in 2019. Two Hungarian universities issued degrees in gender studies–Eotvos Lorand University (ELTE) and CEU.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. By law demonstrations do not require a police permit, but event organizers must inform police of a planned assembly in a public place at least three days in advance. The law authorizes police to prohibit any gathering if it seriously endangers the peaceful operation of representative bodies or courts or if it is not possible to provide for alternate routes for traffic. Police may not disband a spontaneous, unauthorized assembly that remains peaceful and is aimed at expressing opinion on an event that was unforeseeable, but organizers must inform police immediately after organizing has begun. Police are required to disband an assembly if it commits a crime or incites the commission of a crime, results in the violation of the rights of others, involves armed participants, or is held despite a preliminary official ban. A police decision to prohibit or disband a public demonstration is open for judicial review. The police may disband public events in the geographic area affected by a terrorist act that has occurred or one that is threatened.
On June 20, parliament adopted a constitutional amendment that includes a provision to strengthen the protection of privacy by stipulating that freedom of expression and the exercise of the right of assembly shall not harm others’ private and family life and their homes. Critics asserted this would be used to ban unwanted protests in public spaces near politicians’ homes and could be used to ban protests in many other public spaces that have apartments nearby.
On July 20, parliament also amended the law on assembly to give more power to the government to regulate public demonstrations, including the ability to hold organizers liable for damages caused by their events and to ban protests in advance. According to the amended law, authorities may ban or dissolve gatherings that unnecessarily and disproportionately harm others’ human dignity, the dignity of the Hungarian nation, or other national, ethnic, or religious communities. The new rules also permit police to prevent demonstrations that hinder diplomats from performing their duties, threaten public order, or disturb others’ rights to free movement. Although the police’s decision is not subject to appeal, the organizers may contest it in court within three days. The police can fine demonstration organizers if they fail to restore a demonstration site to its original state or clean it up. The new legislation also criminalizes the nonviolent disturbance or impediment of a demonstration.
On July 20, parliament amended the criminal code to make harassment of “official persons” (including members of parliament, judges, and prosecutors) when they are not performing public duties a crime punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, and the government generally respected it, with some exceptions.
During the year the government passed legislation that introduced new criminal and financial penalties for migration-related work of NGOs and their staff (see section 5).
On July 23, the Budapest local municipality ordered the Aurora Civil and Cultural Center–which provides office space for several NGOs–to close, claiming Aurora’s lease was invalid because it predates the center’s registration; Aurora claimed that it had not violated any rules and that the issue with the date was an administrative mistake. This was the second attempt to shut down the center within one year.
The Fidesz-dominated city assembly of Pecs passed a resolution in December 2017 calling on local residents, businesses, and organizations not to rent or provide any space within the city to the NGO With the Strength of Humanity because it received an approximately $490,000 grant from the Open Society Foundations (OSF) to support community building in the region. The NGO sued the city mayor for libel but lost the case in a July ruling. The NGO said it would appeal the decision. In March a local municipality-owned company rejected an attempt by the same NGO to rent premises for an event. The Equal Treatment Authority fined the company in June.
A 2011 law on religion deregistered more than 300 religious groups and organizations that had previously held incorporated church status; most were required to reapply for registration. The government had not approved any applications for incorporated church status since it amended the same law in 2012, but many applications were approved allowing for status as a lesser religious organization. On December 20, parliament passed an amendment to the law that creates four different statuses for religious organizations. Observers noted that while the amendment provides a simpler procedure for religious entities to gain an intermediate level religious status, it only restores some of the rights they had before 2011.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. In 2017-2018, asylum and border management laws underwent significant legal modifications and limited access to asylum procedures.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Human rights advocates, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the European Commission criticized the government’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers. Specifically, these organizations reported that migrants and asylum seekers were pushed back to the external side of the border fence on the Serbian-Hungarian border, even if they had not entered Hungary through Serbia. Reports included instances of police violence against refugees and migrants attempting to cross from Serbia to Hungary.
Domestic and international human rights organizations reported fewer complaints regarding the excessive use of police force and abuse against refugees and migrants while the number of asylum seekers decreased, compared with previous years. Human rights organizations, however, stated that in most cases, the government did not take formal action against alleged perpetrators and noted that few victims were willing to lodge formal complaints.
The law permits the detention of rejected asylum seekers for a maximum of 12 months (30 days in cases of families with children). Immigration detention generally took place in immigration detention centers.
The asylum law requires mandatory detention of all asylum seekers other than unaccompanied minors younger than 14. All new asylum seekers were detained in two guarded transit zones (Roszke and Tompa) on the Serbian-Hungarian border, which they could not leave without abandoning their asylum claims.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: In 2015 two Bangladeshi asylum seekers, Ilias Ilias and Ali Ahmed, filed suit against the government, asking for release from a transit detention zone and a halt to their expulsion to Serbia. Authorities kept the men in the transit zone for more than three weeks before sending them back to Serbia, considered a safe country under a 2015 government decree. In 2017 the ECHR ruled the men’s return to Serbia as well as their detention was unlawful, but the government appealed the ruling. The ECHR’s Grand Chamber heard the case on April 18; a final judgement remained pending.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for asylum and establishes a procedure for persons in the country to apply for it, but often little or no opportunity to apply was afforded. Since 2017 police were allowed to push back to the Serbian side of the border fence any migrants who could not prove their right to stay in the country, regardless of whether or not they entered the country from Serbia. There is no judicial remedy concerning such “push-backs.”
On June 20, parliament adopted a legislative package that introduced new criminal penalties, including a prison sentence of up to a year, for “facilitating illegal migration.” It criminalizes providing assistance to asylum seekers who were not subject to persecution in their home country or who had already transited a safe country to submit asylum claims; conducting human rights-focused border monitoring activities; or issuing or distributing information leaflets about asylum procedures. Parliament also modified the constitution to state that persons arriving in Hungary “through a country where he or she was not exposed to persecution or a direct risk of persecution should not be entitled to asylum.”
UNHCR and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights said the law restricts the ability of NGOs and individuals to support asylum seekers and refugees. On June 25, the Venice Commission and the OSCE published a joint opinion on the law, asserting it seriously hindered the operation of legitimate civil groups. On July 19, the European Commission initiated an infringement procedure against Hungary for violating EU and international laws with the introduction of new nonadmissibility grounds for asylum applications and curtailing the right to asylum. In July the European Commission also referred Hungary to the European Court of Justice, asserting its asylum and return legislation did not comply with EU law, namely for holding asylum applicants too long in transit zones at the border and failing to give them proper access to asylum procedures and legal safeguards.
The government provided UNHCR and the International Federation of Red Cross access to refugees and asylum seekers. Cooperation with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance (as opposed to access) varied (also see Access to Basic Services, below). Access by other humanitarian organizations was more limited. A few domestic NGOs were provided access to the transit zones, and a few other NGOs were provided access only when asylum seekers specifically requested their assistance. Human rights NGOs alleged the government granted access only to certain cooperative organizations, making it difficult to verify information.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The government issued lists of “safe countries of origin” and “safe third countries.” Both lists included Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. UNHCR repeatedly objected to the government’s recognition of Serbia as a safe third country on the grounds that it does not have effective asylum procedures.
Freedom of Movement: In 2015 the government set up two transit zones at the country’s southern border with Serbia, capable of hosting 200-300 persons each, where asylum seekers were required to wait while their requests for refugee status were processed. The government also closed reception facilities for asylum seekers, so that by summer only the facility in Vamosszabadi remained open. The Vamosszabadi facility hosted persons granted international protection for up to 30 days.
Access to Basic Services: In 2016 parliament amended the law to reduce benefits and assistance to those given international protection on the grounds they should not have more advantages than Hungarian citizens. The law requires mandatory and automatic revision of refugee status at least every three years, sets the maximum period at 30 days of stay in open reception centers after recognition, and establishes an eligibility period of six months for basic health-care services following recognition. Authorities do not provide housing allowances, educational allowances, or monthly cash allowances to asylum seekers or beneficiaries of subsidiary protection.
The two transit zones for migrants provided clothes, soap, meals, water, and shelter. Charities provided some educational and social activities in English or Hungarian, as well as supplemental nutrition for children. The government also provided basic medical assistance on site. Between November 2017 and June, a psychologist visited the transit zones for six hours per week without any translation available; the psychologist was subsequently allowed to use government translators. Officials denied transit zone access to certain NGOs and a UNHCR contractor, which prevented several migrants who had previously suffered torture and asylum seekers suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder from receiving specialized care. At the beginning of the year, a government-funded psychiatrist started visiting the two transit zones once per week.
Based on new asylum rules that went into effect July 1 regarding transit by asylum seekers through countries the government considered safe (including Serbia) prior to entering Hungary, immigration authorities rejected all post-June 30 asylum requests heard by December 14. They also interpreted the new rules to mean no food should be given to asylum seekers who appeal their denials, with the exception of children and nursing mothers. The ECHR granted interim measures in five cases in August and ordered the country to feed the asylum seekers. The government subsequently began providing meals to all rejected asylum seekers who appealed.
Durable Solutions: Refugees are allowed to naturalize, but research by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) in 2015 (commissioned by UNHCR) found that the applications of refugees and stateless persons were approved at a dramatically lower rate than those of other naturalization seekers. High fees (for example, for certified translations) made the naturalization process more difficult. The government applied preferential conditions to applicants with Hungarian ancestry (via the so-called simplified naturalization process), but not to refugees or stateless persons. The HHC criticized the procedural framework for naturalization, noting decisions were not explained to applicants and no appeal of rejections is allowed.
There were no reported cases of onward refugee resettlement from the country to other states.
Temporary Protection: The law provides for a specific temporary protection status for situations of mass influx, but organizations working on the problem reported that it was not used in practice. Under the law, all forms of international protection (refugee status, subsidiary protection, tolerated stay, stateless status, etc.) are temporary by nature, with periodic review of the entitlement to protection.
The country operates a dedicated statelessness determination procedure and provides a humanitarian residence permit to persons recognized as stateless. According to UNHCR, 139 stateless persons lived in the country at the end of 2017, and the government maintained what UNHCR characterized as a good stateless-person determination process. The law provides for naturalization by stateless persons.