Pressure on Hungary in rule of law discord and media freedom

!!444!!! InsightHungary!!!  (*)

The government has taken three blows from the EU in the last few days, all of which makes its position in the long disputes with Brussels over the rule of law less and less tenable. First, the European Commission has written to Hungary – and also to Poland – about problems with the independence of the judiciary, with the lack of prosecution of corruption, and deficiencies in public procurement which threaten the EU’s financial interests.

The two letters, seen by Politico, are an informal first step toward triggering the mechanism adopted last year that allows the EU to cut back on funds because of rule-of-law concerns.

In the letter sent to the Hungarian government, the Commission described systemic problems and a general lack of accountability for corruption, posing sixteen specific questions to Hungarian authorities on issues such as conflicts of interest, who benefits from EU funding, and how judicial review by independent courts is guaranteed.

The Commission also underlined that the bloc’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, found that in the period of 2016 to 2020, Hungary’s financial recommendations in the areas of regional development and agriculture were almost eight times the EU average.

On Tuesday, a landmark decision was made by the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg. Hungarian Judge Csaba Vasvári, who fought for judicial independence, asked the ECJ in connection with a verdict brought against him by the Hungarian Supreme Court, the Curia.

The latter’s decision had been in accordance with the will of Chief Prosecutor Péter Polt.

Vasvári turned to the ECJ with a number of questions on issues of judicial independence, which Polt, and the government said was unacceptable.

The ECJ ruled that the Curia’s judgment should not be taken into account and that it was contrary to EU law to initiate disciplinary proceedings against a national judge on the basis of seeking guidance from the ECJ for a preliminary ruling.

The verdict is a huge blow to the government.

Finally, in a long letter, Viktor Orbán called on Ursula von der Leyen and the European Commission to suspend infringement proceedings against Hungary, which “undermine the territorial and national integrity of the Member States and the protection of the security of their citizens.”

The European Commission has launched multiple such proceedings, mostly in connection with the rule of law, and has even turned to the European Court of Justice in mid-November for non-compliance with last December’s verdicts on asylum seekers.

But the letter had little effect on the Commission. No reply has yet been given in writing, but Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas said at a press conference in Strasbourg that there was not much to talk about:

There is no political room for maneuver in infringement proceedings. These are strictly defined processes. The only way to close such a procedure is to resolve the case on which it is based. Infringement proceedings may not be terminated for political reasons or by letters, according to him.

United Nations top expert concerned over media freedom in Hungary

UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression Irene Khan summed up her visit in Hungary and concluded that the government was trying to distort the media market in its favor, which raises serious concerns ahead of the 2022 general elections.

During the next general elections, scheduled for April 2022, the way in which the Hungarian government has intervened in the media market over the past decade could pose a human rights risk, said Irene Khan in a press conference in Budapest.

“Information cannot be monopolized in a democracy,” Khan underlined.

“I see a distorted media environment in Hungary where pluralism, diversity and independence of media is being questioned,” Khan also said.

“Therefore it is important to ensure that in the context of the elections, there is fair reporting, there is access to all the candidates on a fair and equal basis, and that public service media … maintains an impartial approach to the different parties and candidates,” she added.

The full report will not be available before next June, but Khan emphasized that even then, before the next spring election, care must be taken to ensure that candidates have equal access to media and that voters are able to receive information from many different sources.

She also mentioned that “Freedom of expression which political candidates have should not be abused to create a toxic environment of violence and hatred”.

On behalf of the government, Justice Minister Judit Varga reacted on her Facebook page: “It seems that a toxic environment for Madam Commissioner means a country where the liberal mainstream is not a hegemony but remains only as much present as the conservative side.

We regret if some people cannot find here the same liberal hegemony they got used to at home, in the ‘developed’ West. For us, however, media pluralism means the equal visibility of the different views.”

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(*) !!444 InsightHungary!!!,  is one of the few independent media  beyond the control of the Government of the  autocrat Viktor Orbán.