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Protect Hungarians' right to criticise public officials, say IFEX members

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban talks to journalists after casting his vote during Hungary's municipal elections in Budapest, October 12, 2014
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban talks to journalists after casting his vote during Hungary's municipal elections in Budapest, October 12, 2014

REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

To:
Dr. Laszlo Trocsanyi
Minister of Justice

CC:
Dr. Gyorgy Rubovszky
Chairman, Committee on Justice of the Hungarian Parliament
Mr. David Kaye
UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression
Ms. Dunja Mijatović
OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media

Dear Dr. Trocsanyi,

The undersigned members of IFEX, the global network promoting and defending freedom of expression worldwide, call attention to the chilling effect caused by the abuse of defamation laws used to protect public officials from legitimate criticism in Hungary. We urge you to support the bill on free public debate that was recently introduced to decriminalise defamation and libel and support the right of Hungarian citizens to participate in public debate without fear of punishment.

According to the Hungarian Criminal Procedure Act, the applicant is tasked with prosecuting criminal defamation and libel charges. In those cases, when the victim is a public official, the state takes over the burden of prosecution. The police conduct the investigation, and the prosecutor makes the accusation. Those indicted will be fingerprinted and photographed, treated as common criminals simply for expressing their views or opinions.

These regulations severely curtail the right of journalists and citizens to participate in public discourse, a cornerstone of a healthy democratic society based on a plurality of opinions and open debate on the actions of public officials. Such legal instruments are used to threaten journalists and critical citizens with high financial penalties to cover damages and legal fees, or even with criminal proceedings. Thus, it has become increasingly difficult to control the power of the state and disclose public corruption.

The bill on free public debate (in Hungarian) introduced by an individual MP is aimed at addressing the above-mentioned legal discrepancy. According to the draft law, defamation and libel shall be decriminalised, while persons exercising public power will be unable to initiate civil proceedings based on criticism related to their official activity as a public servant.

In several European countries, including Macedonia and Montenegro, lawmakers recently decriminalised libel and defamation to ensure free public debate for journalists, bloggers and social media users. Decriminalisation of libel and defamation, the amendment of criminal procedure and the amendment of civil law are all in line with the UN and OSCE recommendations on the matter.

We support the change put forth in the legislation, which would place Hungary among those countries where the protection of free speech is ensured. We call on you to support this important law and protect the right of all Hungarian citizens to voice their political opinion openly and freely.

Signed,

Hungarian Civil Liberties Union
ActiveWatch – Media Monitoring Agency
Adil Soz - International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech
Afghanistan Journalists Center
Albanian Media Institute
ARTICLE 19
Association of Caribbean Media Workers
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Center for Independent Journalism - Hungary
Foundation for Press Freedom - FLIP
Freedom Forum
Fundamedios - Andean Foundation for Media Observation and Study
Globe International Center
Human Rights Network for Journalists - Uganda
Index on Censorship
Initiative for Freedom of Expression - Turkey
Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information
International Press Institute
International Publishers Association
MARCH
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance
Media Watch
Observatorio Latinoamericano para la Libertad de Expresión - OLA
Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms - MADA
PEN American Center
PEN Canada
Reporters Without Borders
Social Media Exchange - SMEX
Southeast Asian Press Alliance

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