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Hungary: 'This is a creeping dictatorship'

Spencer KimballOctober 1, 2015

Police in Hungary have allegedly beaten and detained foreign journalists covering the refugee crisis. DW spoke with leading Viktor Orban critic Kim Lane Scheppele, who says Hungary is becoming a police state.

Österreich PK Viktor Orban Premierminister Ungarn
Image: Reuters/H.P. Bader

Luca Muzi was filming refugees as they crossed into Hungary. When police intercepted them near the Serbian border, the Associated Press cameraman caught on tape a Hungarian officer letting his muzzled dog knock down a Syrian man.

A policewoman saw Muzi filming and ordered him to stop. Though Muzi identified himself as a journalist, he was detained and taken to a dark area outside of a refugee center, where police ordered him to delete the footage. The cameraman said he felt threatened by police dogs.

The Hungarian government disputed these allegations, leveled by the Associated Press in a letter of protest. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least seven international journalists have been beaten or detained while covering the refugee crisis in Hungary. The police have "categorically" denied these allegations.

On Tuesday, the CPJ published a report on press freedom in the EU, which criticized Brussels for not holding Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government accountable for restricting the media. Deutsche Welle spoke with Kim Lane Scheppele, a Princeton University professor and leading international critic of Viktor Orban's government, who says Hungarian democracy is in jeopardy.

DW: Do you believe the Hungarian police intentionally targeted these journalists?

Scheppele: This is happening in a context in which journalists have been under verbal attack by the government for five years now. If there wasn't a direct intention to attack journalists, it happens in a context in which journalists have been publicly singled out by the Hungarian state.

If you're a foreign journalist covering Hungary, every time you write something your outlet is deluged with hate mail and with demands from your friendly local ambassador for equal time, retractions, publications of letters, etcetera. A lot of foreign journalists, well before this refugee crisis, have given up covering Hungary.

Ungarn Flüchtlinge in Roszke
The Hungarian government has empowered the police and the military to take harsh action to stem the flow of refugees crossing into the countryImage: Reuters/L. Balogh

Does Hungary have a free press?

There is something called the Hungarian Information Service (MTI). It was operating pretty independently before the Orban government came to power. They nationalized it and fired all the independent journalists and put in their people.

Under this set of media laws, every newspaper, radio and TV station must use the dispatches from the MTI. They can add to it, but they can't fail to publish the government's perspective. And the media council, which is full of appointees of this government, have the power to levy bankrupting fines on any media outlet that fails to provide "balance." Balance is deemed as you have to publish the MTI reports.

It's a media state where if you live in the countryside you only get the government's point of view. If you live in an urban area and are sort of wired, then you can get objective news. It's not a complete lock down, just as in Russia it's not a complete lock down for the same reasons. But you wouldn't call it a robust free press.

Is Hungary's response to the refugee crisis consistent with European law?

They have an on-going state of emergency in which they have probably derogated from certain European Convention-protected rights, which would cause alarm if anybody was noticing this legal framework.

The police have powers to stop and search any car, develop cordon zones, and prevent free movement. The military can use rubber bullets against the refugees or live fire if they feel they're threatened. The Hungarian government has now, using these laws, declared emergencies in six counties in Hungary.

Ungarn Röszke Grenze Polizeieinsatz gegen Flüchtlinge
Hungarian police have allegedly beaten and detained foreign journalists coverning the refugee crisis.Image: Reuters/D. Ruvic

This is sort of a creeping dictatorship, the government overall. The refugee crisis has given them cover for enacting laws that they probably wouldn't have been able to enact if they hadn't whipped the public up into this panic.

Next in the pipeline is a law that will take every Hungarian's photo ID card and digitize the photograph so it can be used with facial recognition technology. Every Hungarian will have their photo in a database at the same time the Hungarian government is installing CCTV cameras all over the country.

These digitized photographs come with what they call connection codes that will enable the government to link up the photo database with all other databases the government has on individuals.

Why hasn't the European Union intervened?

Part of the problem is that Hungary is the least of their problems. They have the eurozone crisis, Ukraine, the bigger refugee crisis, the threat of British exit. A million things have happened, all of which were urgent, and Hungary was a slowly ticking time bomb.

At this moment of really fragile solidarity in Europe, the [European] Commission is deadly afraid that if they go after Hungary for creating a dictatorship within the EU, then the Brits will just get out.

Which is to say, if the EU institutions take such a strong stand on the internal affairs of a member state this will be exactly the scenario the euro-skeptical parties in the UK will use as an excuse to take Britain out of the EU.