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19th Oct 2020

EU commission's counter-Orban claims unlikely to work, NGO says

  • Viktor Orban (l) is leading a national crusade against immigrants (Photo: premier.gov.pl)

Hungary's grip on the media and its chilling effects against the opposition will likely obstruct efforts by the European Commission to counter the Fidesz-led government's anti-EU rhetoric, says a leading Budapest-based NGO.

"There is a media landscape now where the government has basically 500 media outlets, all the regional newspapers and the whole entire public broadcast media," Marta Pardavi, who co-chairs the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, told this website on Thursday (28 February).

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Pardavi's comments follow commission statements, also on Thursday, to dispel what the EU-executive says are Hungarian government lies "to paint a dark picture of a secret plot to drive more migration to Europe".

Budapest, under the right-wing leadership of Viktor Orban, has been spearheading a national campaign against the European commission and the EU's broader migration policies.

The government has made a series of bogus claims in a "You too have the right to know what Brussels is planning!" campaign.

It falsely claims the EU wants to impose mandatory resettlement quotas, when in fact it is up to EU states to decide on a voluntary basis how many UN-recognised refugees they want to take.

It also suggests that prepaid debit cards to help refugees in Greece with things like food are traded elsewhere, when in fact the cards cannot be used in other countries.

The commission told reporters in Brussels on Thursday that it intends to get its message out to the Hungarian people through social media and its EU representation on the ground.

"We have a Hungarian translation of the text," noted EU commission spokesperson, Mina Andreeva.

But Pardavi says while the commission's message to counter Orban's propaganda is needed, the impact will be limited.

"The commission, given this media landscape I think, will need to do a little bit more than putting out this statement," she said.

Civil society in Hungary that try to counter Orban's rhetoric are also at risk of hefty fines imposed through a special immigration tax.

Pardavi says the tax law, which has yet to be imposed, is causing a chilling effect on civil society because it targets NGOs that promote migration.

"I think this special immigration tax [was] actually created, not only to stifle freedom of speech on migration, but actually to stifle Hungarian society from a having a real debate on migration," she said.

It means efforts to spread or amplify the commission's message issued on Thursday are rendered all the more risky for Hungarian civil society.

Orban has since 2010 moved to limit the space for opposition, installed government-friendly loyalists in the Constitutional Court, tweaked the electoral system to favour his party, and passed a so-called Stop Soros Act that also makes it a criminal offence to help asylum-seekers.

The same court on Thursday appeared to back the Stop Soros Act, after Amnesty International Hungary denounced it as a violation of free expression.

The court had found that helping people in need should not be covered by the criminal provision of the law - but then left it up to the criminal courts to interpret this provision in practice.

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