HUNGARY: Government’s stranglehold on media poses serious risks to human rights, according to UN expert

Statement by Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, published on 22/11/2021

GENEVA (22 November 2021) – Hungary’s interventions in the media sector over the past decade could create risks for human rights in the upcoming elections, the UN expert on freedom of opinion and expression said at the end of an official visit to the country.

There can be no information monopoly in a democracy,” Khan said at the end of her week-long visit.

By exerting influence over media regulatory bodies, providing substantial state funds to support pro-government media, facilitating the expansion and development of media that follow a pro-government editorial line, and ostracizing media outlets and journalists reporting critically on the government, the authorities have proactively reshaped the media sector and in their efforts to create “balance” have undermined media diversity, pluralism and independence.

Khan called on the authorities to safeguard editorial freedom and access to diverse sources of information, enhance the independence of regulatory bodies and ensure that State actions, including advertising, does not distort the media market.

In light of the upcoming parliamentary elections, I call on monitoring and oversight mechanisms to ensure equal, equitable access of election contestants to media, impartial coverage of information, news and opinion about candidates and their programmes, and freedom of the media to report freely and of electorate to seek and receive information from diverse sources.

The UN expert also called on the OSCE/ODIHR to monitor the state of media freedom in the country in the lead up to the elections, and on European Union and EU Member States to encourage the Hungarian Government to take resolute action to uphold human rights.

In my meetings, stakeholders have repeatedly stated that the attacks on media freedom that we see are not an isolated phenomenon but worrying signs of a broader pattern of actions through laws, policies, and practices to suppress dissenting voices, discredit civil society, and weaken human rights protection.”

Expressing serious concerns at reports of recurring campaigns of hate-speech, harassment, or stigmatisation of journalists and human rights defenders working on the rights of migrants, refugees and LGBTI, the UN expert called on the Government to promote and recognise the important contributions that these individuals make in building a more just and inclusive society.

I am deeply troubled by the toxic environment deliberately created by political leaders to sow social divisions and hatred,” Khan said.

I note the repeal of the controversial 2017 NGO Transparency Law, which stigmatised and undermined the work of NGOs, following a decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union. In light of another recent decision of the Court against the so-called ‘Stop Soros’ legislation, I call on the Government to review its approach and revise its policies on civil society organizations which are an essential pillar of democratic society,” Khan added.

I have also listened to concerns of the academic community at the growing pressure on their institutional independence. Given the risks linked to the privatisation of public universities for the autonomy of the scholars, I urge the authorities to effectively protect academic freedom and respect the rights of professors and students.”

The realisation of freedom of expression requires, on the one hand, strong protection of independent institutions, whether regulatory, judiciary or academic, and on the other hand, commitment by politicians and public officials to promote human rights and nurture open and inclusive debate,” concluded Irene Khan.

During her mission, the Special Rapporteur met with State authorities, as well as civil society organisations, journalists, academics, and individuals fighting gender-based discrimination and violence. The Special Rapporteur will prepare a report on the main findings of her visit, which she will present to the Human Rights Council in June 2022.