a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press and other media, who were active and expressed a wide range of views. In a March 30 report, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights asserted that “the combined effects of a politically controlled media regulatory authority and distortionary state intervention in the media market have eroded media pluralism and freedom of expression.” On November 22, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression stated that “by exerting influence over media regulatory bodies, providing substantial state funds to support progovernment media, facilitating the expansion and development of media that follow a progovernment editorial line, and ostracizing media outlets and journalists reporting critically on the government,” authorities undermined media diversity, pluralism, and independence. There were some formal restrictions on content related to “hate speech” and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) topics (see below and in section 6). The government allegedly targeted the mobile phones of several investigative journalists with foreign spyware (see section 1.f.).
In March 2020 as part of the government’s legislative package declaring a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, parliament amended the criminal code to increase the penalty for spreading a “falsehood” or “distorted truth” (“scaremongering”) that could obstruct or prevent successful protection under a special legal order to imprisonment of up to five years (see section 3 for more on the state of emergency). As of June, 196 reports were filed for investigation for the suspicion of scaremongering. A March 30 report by the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights stated, “the high number of investigations launched, including in cases that undoubtedly involved expressions of opinions demonstrate the ambiguity of the amendment.” Free speech advocates and media observers asserted that the existence of the law, even in the absence of its widespread implementation, discouraged the free expression of ideas and objective reporting of the news.
The European Commission’s 2021 Rule of Law Report asserted that the May 2020 government decree that allowed public authorities to delay access to public data by up to 90 days so as not to “jeopardize” official duties during the COVID-19 pandemic state of emergency, further restricted access to information and inhibited independent media outlets’ ability to report news in a timely manner.
A drone law in effect effective January 1 requires a permit to operate flying objects weighing more than 4.2 ounces and made the publication of drone footage of property without the owner’s permission a crime punishable by up to a one-year prison sentence. Independent media had used drone footage to supplement investigative reports on alleged corruption and government misdeeds. In its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders asserted that the restrictions on taking pictures and videos by drones narrowed the scope of press freedom.
Freedom of Expression: Criminal law provides that any person who incites hatred against any national, ethnic, racial, religious, 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 law prohibits the public denial of expression of doubt regarding, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes of the National Socialist (Nazi) and communist regimes; such crimes are punishable by up to three years in prison. The law also prohibits as a misdemeanor 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. The media law also prohibits media content intended to incite hatred or violence against specific minority or majority communities and their members. The law includes the provision that media content must not have the potential to instigate an act of terrorism.
A 2018 law that imposes a 25 percent tax on civil entities that aid or promote immigration remained in force. Several NGOs criticized the law, noting that it penalizes the public expression of opinions different from that of the government (see section 5). According to press reports, no entity had paid any tax in 2020 under the law, and no known tax office investigation or audit had been conducted to that effect.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, with some legislative restriction on LGBTQI+ content (see section 6).
Several media providers criticized the “antipedophile” law passed in June that banned the “promotion” and “portrayal” of “gender reassignment” and homosexuality to minors in media and advertisement. On June 14, the commercial television group RTL Hungary released a statement asserting that the new regulations violated freedom of expression and caused “significant economic damage” to all domestic media players. Other media companies, such as A+E Networks UK, AMC, HBO, WarnerMedia, and ViacomCBS, expressed support for RTL’s statement, and some issued statements of their own.
In its 2021 Rule of Law Report, the European Commission noted concerns that while a broad range of media outlets continued to operate in the country, the diversity of the media market was negatively affected by the concentration of ownership in the hands of a few progovernment businesspersons, especially through the Central European Press and Media Foundation, and the resulting lack of editorial independence.
Some progovernment outlets relied almost completely on government advertising for their revenues. The European Commission’s 2021 Rule of Law Report stated that “significant amounts of state advertising have continued to permit the government to exert indirect political influence over the media.” The 2021 Media Pluralism Monitor reported that the state was the largest advertiser, spending approximately one-third of the total advertising revenue of the market, putting editorial independence at a high risk.
Independent media claimed to have been excluded in a discriminatory fashion from the events and press conferences of government and government-linked entities, thus depriving them of free and fair access to public officials to ask them challenging questions. For example, some outlets were not allowed to attend the prime minister’s June 10 annual press conference.
The National Media and Info-Communications Authority (NMHH), subordinate to parliament, is the central state administrative body for regulating 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, who is nominated by the prime minister, 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. In a March 30 report, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights raised concerns that the president of NMHH was a political appointee who “holds extensive and concentrated powers for nine years over all regulatory, senior staffing, financing, and content matters across all media sectors.”
The Media Council consisted exclusively of persons named by the governing parties. Some experts criticized the Media Council’s radio frequency awarding practices for allegedly penalizing radio stations that were critical of the government. On February 15, the country’s last major independent radio station, Klubradio, ended broadcasts after a court upheld a September 2020 decision by the Media Council not to extend the station’s broadcasting license based on its alleged failure to comply with certain administrative obligations. The Media Council subsequently rejected Klubradio’s new application for the same frequency, although it had submitted the only qualified bid. On June 17, the Curia upheld the Media Council’s decision. On June 9, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure regarding the Klubradio’s case, calling the Media Council’s justification of its decision to deny the frequency license “highly questionable” and characterizing the move as “disproportionate and nontransparent.” Forced to broadcast exclusively online, as of August Klubradio reached only 10 percent of the 200,000 daily listeners it had when it was on the airwaves.
The state news agency, MTI, which offers its services free of charge, 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.
Parliamentary press regulations restrict the movement and work of journalists in parliament to a small cordoned off area. The speaker of parliament, Laszlo Kover, has the authority to ban parliamentary access for journalists for alleged violations of these rules. In April the Curia rejected the lawsuit against the speaker of parliament brought by a media outlet for using his authority to obstruct journalists’ activities.
Violence and Harassment: There were no reports of violence against journalists or of physical or legal harassment. Nevertheless, government officials and government-aligned media continued to refer to some independent journalists as “Soros agents” or “Soros mercenaries” and independent media as the “Soros media” or the “Soros blog.” The government has long portrayed Hungarian-American businessman/philanthropist George Soros as the mastermind behind numerous purported plots against the country. The anti-Soros campaign has anti-Semitic overtones, as the prime minister and others link Soros and the purported plots to “shadowy globalist forces.” For instance, on the anniversary of the 1956 revolution, the prime minister accused the opposition of competing to represent the interests of Soros and the EU, aiming to “take Hungary from the hands of Mary and place it at the feet of Brussels.”
On multiple occasions, government-aligned outlets criticized nongovernment-aligned, independent, and international journalists by name for their reporting.
In April the public television channel M1 broadcast a six-minute report that attacked an Austrian journalist for “provocative allegations disguised as questions” sent in an email to Fidesz’s delegation to the EU for an article in an Austrian magazine. The report referred to her as an “amateur journalist” for the “left-liberal press,” and displayed her name and photograph while drawing attention to previous articles she wrote on the prime minister. Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto wrote on his Facebook page that the journalist was “spreading fake news.” Reporters Without Borders condemned the attack on her professional credentials, and the Association of European Journalists called the M1 report an attempt to damage the professional reputation of a journalist.
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 public service media providers pursue balanced, accurate, detailed, objective, and responsible news and information services. These requirements were often disregarded. Opposition politicians complained that they were rarely able to appear on public television and radio or were given significantly less time to articulate their positions. There were reports that public media was instructed to cover the COVID-19 pandemic in specific ways, including which photographs could be shared.
The Media Council may impose monetary 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 ($666,000), 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 the implementation of fines while the parties litigate the substantive appeal.
On March 4, the Media Council opened administrative legal procedures against the commercial television channel RTL Klub on child protection grounds for airing an ad campaign in support of LGBTQI+ families; the case was pending at year’s end.
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 other public figures continued to use libel and defamation laws in response to criticism from citizens and journalists. On May 6, an appellate court in Budapest upheld a lower court’s November 2020 ruling to convict a reporter for independent news site 444.hu on a criminal defamation charge. The court issued a reprimand, meaning that the conviction was to remain on the journalist’s criminal record for three years, but it did not otherwise impose any penalty. The charges stemmed from a 2017 article accusing a Fidesz-linked Budapest city district council member of harassing the journalist while she attempted to report his presence at a party forum. The government-aligned publisher Mediaworks sued its former sports journalist for defamation after he criticized the editorial practice in one of its outlets. In February the court ruled in favor of the journalist.
Opposition politicians and government-critical private individuals sued government-aligned media outlets in several cases. Courts tended to pass verdicts that protected private individuals from libel or slander by government-affiliated media and their reporters. At the beginning of the year, progovernment media outlets ran hundreds of articles that mischaracterized statements by a leading independent political analyst concerning the use of Russian and Chinese COVID-19 vaccines. Government officials including the prime minister repeated the misleading assertions. Media frenzy regarding the remarks resulted in threats of physical harm against the analyst and his family. Although the analyst won several lawsuits against the progovernment media outlets that misrepresented his remarks, no government officials retracted their criticism of him.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet and generally did not censor online content. There were no reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Experts pointed out, however, that formal approvals of secret surveillance activities against citizens were relatively easy to obtain (see section 1.f.).
In cooperation with internet service providers, the NMHH maintained a nonpublic database to store and cooperate in the implementation of court rulings and tax authority resolutions to block websites that violate the law, including content-related legislation.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The higher education law requires universities from non-EU countries to have a physical presence in their country of origin, operate under an intergovernmental agreement between Hungary and the country of accreditation, and stipulates that the university’s name in Hungarian reflects an exact translation of the name in the country of origin. Following a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in October 2020 that declared the law in breach of EU law and World Trade Organization fair market access rules, in May the government revoked part of the law that forced U.S.-accredited Central European University (CEU) to transfer most of its operations to Vienna. The legislative change removed the requirement that foreign universities must be state-recognized higher education institutions providing such education in their home countries. The law stipulated that higher education institutions established outside the European Economic Area may offer degree programs under a signed agreement between Hungary and the government of the institution’s country of origin and that a foreign institution’s education be equivalent to that offered by Hungarian higher education. A similar requirement of an intergovernmental treaty forced the CEU to move from Budapest in 2019 as the government declined to sign the draft agreement to bring CEU into compliance with the law.
In July the Constitutional Court closed the CEU case without a ruling, which it suspended in 2018. The Constitutional Court stated that the petitions became obsolete after parliament adopted new legislation.
Under legislation passed by parliament in May 2020, the government assigned private foundations the right to operate six public universities starting in August 2020. On April 27, the ruling Fidesz majority in parliament voted to transfer control of another 11 public universities and billions of dollars of state assets to private foundations, which as a result gained control over 70 percent of the country’s higher education institutions. On April 30, the prime minister stated that the format would make universities more efficient and competitive and added the foundations would be overseen by “national-minded” individuals, as opposed to “internationalist or globalist” persons. On July 2-3, the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s body of constitutional experts, issued an opinion that these public-asset management foundations might jeopardize academic freedom and weaken the autonomy of higher-education institutions (see section 4).
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right, with some exceptions.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution includes a provision on the protection of privacy, which stipulates that freedom of expression and the exercise of the right to assembly shall not harm others’ private and family life and their homes, potentially restricting protests in public spaces near politicians’ homes and protests in other public spaces that have apartments nearby. The law also permits the government to regulate public demonstrations, including holding organizers liable for damages caused by their events, and to ban protests in advance. Under the law authorities may ban or dissolve gatherings that unnecessarily and disproportionately harm the “dignity of the Hungarian nation or of any national, ethnic, or religious community.” The law also criminalizes the nonviolent disturbance or impediment of a demonstration.
The criminal code provides that harassment of “official persons” (including members of parliament, judges, and prosecutors) when they are not performing public duties is a crime punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.
In November 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government enacted a blanket ban on assemblies in public spaces and imposed monetary fines for violations of up to 500,000 forints ($1,670) for participants of banned protests. Human rights groups criticized the blanket ban as disproportionate. On March 15, several hundred individuals took part in a protest organized by far-right party Mi Hazank in Budapest against the government’s lockdown restrictions despite the ban on assemblies. Protesters gradually dispersed after police began checking identification documents. In June the ban was lifted.
Freedom of Association
In May the government adopted legislation that repealed the 2017 law on “foreign-funded NGOs” and at the same time mandated the State Audit Office (SAO) to annually report on NGOs that had an annual budget greater than $66,000 and were “capable of influencing public life.” Sports, religious, and national minority organizations were exempted (see section 5).
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 has not approved any applications for incorporated church status since it amended the law in 2012, but it approved many applications for a lesser status of religious organizations. In 2019 an amendment to the law entered into force creating four different statuses for religious organizations. Observers noted that while the amendment provides a simpler procedure for religious entities to gain an intermediate-level status, it only restores some of the rights those religious groups could exercise before 2011.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with and provided the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to refugees and asylum seekers, apart from those held in detention under the aliens’ policing procedure.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for asylum and establishes a procedure for asylum seekers outside the country to apply for it, but UNHCR stated in June 2020 that the law (see below) “further undermines the effective access to territory and asylum for those fleeing wars and persecution which had been already seriously constrained before.”
In May 2020 the government closed the two transit zones on the Hungary-Serbia border following the ruling of the ECJ that classified them as places of unlawful detention and in breach of EU law. In June 2020 it introduced an asylum system according to which asylum seekers must first make a declaration of intent stating their wish to apply for asylum at a Hungarian embassy outside the EU – limited to Serbia and Ukraine – and be issued a special entry permit to Hungary for the purpose of applying for international protection. The asylum authority has 60 days to examine the statement of intent and make a proposal to the embassy whether to issue the asylum seeker a special single-entry travel permit to enter Hungary. If the permit is issued, the asylum seeker must travel on their own to Hungary within 30 days and, upon arrival, immediately identify themselves to the border guards who present them to the asylum authority within 24 hours. Those not granted the special single-entry permit at one of the embassies may not request asylum in the country. During this time the asylum seeker is not entitled to accommodation or any support services and is not entitled to any legal protection.
One family’s statement of intent was assessed positively in November 2020 and the asylum authority granted family members single-entry permits in order to apply for asylum in Hungary, where their asylum applications were approved. According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, between January and June, there were 42 statements of intent submitted, of which four were approved, 32 were rejected, and six were pending. In October 2020 the European Commission opened an infringement procedure due to the asylum rules, which it considered to be unlawful as they preclude persons who are in the country’s territory, including at the border, from applying for international protection. On July 15, it referred the country to the ECJ for unlawfully restricting access to asylum procedures.
As a matter of policy, all third-country nationals who do not have the right to remain in the country (e.g., a valid visa or residence permit), regardless of where they are located, are “escorted” to the other side of the fence along the border with Serbia. In December 2020 the ECJ declared this practice, known as pushbacks, in violation of EU law.
On January 27, Frontex, the EU agency responsible for monitoring external borders, announced that it was suspending operations in Hungary. The decision came as Hungary has continued to push back (expel) migrants into Serbia without observing legal safeguards, despite a December 2020 ECJ ruling declaring the practice in violation of EU law. On January 27, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson tweeted that “after the ECJ ruling demanding Hungary stop push-backs into Serbia, the suspension of Frontex border operations in Hungary is welcome.”
On November 12, the European Commission requested the ECJ impose financial penalties for noncompliance with the court’s December 2020 ruling. In February the government brought the matter before the Constitutional Court, arguing implementation of the ECJ ruling would be contrary to the country’s constitution. EU Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders criticized this measure as “unacceptable,” calling into question of the primacy of EU law. On December 10, the Constitutional Court avoided ruling on the primacy of the EU law in the case, but it stated that the government had the right to apply its own measures under certain circumstances.
On July 8, the ECHR ruled that automatic pushbacks of asylum seekers carried out by authorities were in breach of the prohibition of collective expulsion enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. The ruling concerned the case of a Pakistani citizen who crossed the Serbia-Hungary border without papers in 2016 and was forcibly removed by Hungarian police to the external side of the Hungarian border fence without an effective domestic legal remedy at his disposal. The ECHR ordered the government to pay the applicant 5,000 euros ($5,750) in nonpecuniary damages.
In a March 10 press release, UNHCR stated that it “deplored” the government’s February 27 decision to extend by another six months the “crisis situation due to mass migration,” which authorizes police to automatically remove (pushback) third-country nationals intercepted for unlawfully entering or staying in Hungary. “As a result of this decision, people who may be in need of international protection are denied access to territory and asylum procedures,” UNHCR stated. The government introduced the “crisis situation due to mass migration” in certain counties near the Serbian border in 2015 and broadened it to the whole country in 2016, also authorizing the armed forces to assist police at the borders. The government’s prolonging of the crisis situation “follows a string of concerning developments impeding access to asylum” and despite a 75 percent decrease in the number of arrivals to the EU compared with 2016, UNHCR noted.
In December 2020 the European Commission launched an infringement procedure for widely exempting the application of EU public procurement rules related to migration during the “crisis situation.”
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The government maintained 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 designation of Serbia as a safe third country on the grounds that it does not have effective asylum procedures. The law states that persons arriving in the country “through a country where he or she was not exposed to persecution or a direct risk of persecution should not be entitled to asylum.” Parliament also amended the asylum law and restricted the right to asylum to only those persons who arrived in the country directly from a place where their life or freedom were at risk.
Refoulement: According to police statistics, 33,364 individuals were pushed back and 26,011 were blocked entry between January and August.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: Human rights advocates, the European Commission, and UNHCR criticized the government’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, including its pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers to the Serbian side of the Serbia-Hungary border fence, even if they had not entered Hungary through Serbia. There have been reports of police and border guards using violence when enforcing the pushback policy that has resulted in hospitalization and severe injuries among those forcibly returned to Serbia.
Domestic human rights NGOs reported that their attorneys had difficulties in maintaining contact with foreigners kept in aliens-policing or asylum-detention facilities.
Freedom of Movement: Following the closure of the transit zones, the asylum provisions prescribe the automatic “placement of the applicant in a closed facility” for four weeks following the registration of their asylum request, without any available remedy to challenge the placement. After four weeks the applicant may either be placed in an open facility or in detention, with a legal remedy available against that detention decision. There were no reports of the legal remedy being exercised, however. The law permits the detention of rejected asylum seekers under an aliens policing procedure for a maximum of 12 months or for eight months under asylum detention in certain cases of pending asylum applications. The detention of individuals accused of immigration offenses generally took place in designated immigration detention centers.
On March 2, the ECHR ruled that the placement of an Iranian-Afghan family in the transit zone at the Hungary-Serbia border during their asylum procedure constituted unlawful detention and deprivation of liberty. The court also found that the living conditions of the family were in violation of the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment. The court ordered the state to pay 4,500 euros ($5,200) each to the applicant children and 6,500 euros ($7,500) each to the adults for nonpecuniary damage, as well as 5,000 euros ($5,750) for legal expenses.
Access to Basic Services: The National Directorate-General for Aliens Policing (asylum authority) has 60 days to make a proposal to the Hungarian embassy in Belgrade or Kyiv on whether to grant an asylum seeker a single-entry permit. During this time the asylum seeker is not entitled to accommodation or any support services and is not entitled to any legal protection.
Human rights advocates reported that, since the closure of the two transit zones, the refugee reception centers on the Hungary-Slovakia border were almost empty in the first half of the year due to the low number of asylum seekers arriving to the country. In the second half of the year, most of the Afghan evacuees airlifted from Afghanistan by the Hungarian defense forces temporarily resided in these facilities.
The law limits benefits and assistance to persons given international protection on the grounds they should not have more advantages than citizens. Authorities do not provide housing allowances, educational allowances, or monthly cash allowances to asylum seekers, refugees, or beneficiaries of subsidiary protection. The government did grant temporary benefits and assistance to Afghan individuals airlifted by the Hungarian forces in August.
In 2019 the European Commission referred Hungary to the ECJ, stating the legislation that criminalizes providing assistance to asylum seekers who were not subject to persecution in their home country or who had already transited a safe country curtailed the asylum seekers’ right to communicate with and be assisted by national, international, and nongovernmental organizations. On November 16, the ECJ ruled that this legislation infringed on EU law. The ECJ reasoned that restricting the right of access to asylum seekers and their right to communicate or consult a legal adviser was not justified by the law’s objective of preventing the misuse of the asylum procedure. The ruling also stated that the inadmissibility of asylum applications on the grounds of arriving through a country where the applicant was not exposed to persecution did not comply with EU law.
Durable Solutions: Refugees are allowed to naturalize, but according to civil society organizations, the applications of refugees and stateless persons were approved at a lower rate than those of other naturalization seekers. There were no reported cases of onward refugee resettlement from the country to other states.
Temporary Protection: The law provides for a specific temporary protected status for situations of mass influx, but organizations working on the problem reported that it was not used. 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.