Voices Drowning in the Danube: Media and Judicial Censorship in Hungary

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Image Source: http://lostinthebambooforest.blogspot.hu/2013/01/history-always-repeats-itself-but-whos.html

According to the annual Freedom of the Press Report published by the US-based non-governmental organization Freedom House, Hungary has been on a downward spiral into a censored society.  This restrictive trend is apparent all the way back to 2010, which coincides with the emergence of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz party. 

According to the 2010 report, Hungary’s was “free” with a score of 23.  On the reports scoring scale ten is the most “free” while 99 is the least “free”.  One year later in 2011, Hungary was still classified as “free” but its rating had dropped to 30, the frontier between “free” and “partly free”.  The report cited a series of press-related laws which were passed.  Most notably this refers to the formation of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH).  Former President Pál Schmitt, who has already stepped down from his position due to allegations concerning the authenticity of his doctoral thesis, approved the legislation which granted PM Orbán the power to appoint the president of NMHH to a nine-year term, without limits on re-election.  The NMHH president also serves as the chairperson of the autonomous five-member Media Council, which levies fines based upon partial coverage to radio and television stations.  All five members were associated with the Fidesz party.

In 2012, Hungary crossed the threshold into the “partly free” territory with a report score of 36.  This occurred due to the

“general decline of the Hungarian media environment due to the establishment of the new National Agency for Data Protection; evidence of a politically motivated licensing procedure resulting in the loss of antigovernment station Klubrádió’s frequencies; increased reports of censorship and self-censorship, especially in the public service channels; and worsening economic conditions for independent media entrepreneurship.” 

The 2013 report was recently released, and according to the overview report Hungary’s status has remained the same.  The specific report on Hungary has not however been published. 

Freedom House is not the only organization to publish similar reports.  Reports Without Borders placed Hungary at 23rd in the world in their 2010 Press Freedom Index.  Just one year later, Hungary dropped to 40thThis year’s Index has Hungary at 56 out of 179 countries. 

It seems in Hungary though that censorship is not only taking place in the media.  According to multiple news sources, the Hungarian Constitutional Court has announced that it will not publicly disclose for ten years the contents of the one particular hearing.  The hearing occurred on April 23rd when President of the National Judicial Office testified before the CC.  Miklós Hagyó and his lawyer petitioned the CC for the hearing as they objected to the Handó’s decision in transferring the trial of 15 associates of the Budapest Transit Authority (BKV) from the Budapest Metropolitan Court to the Kecskemét Tribunal.  A blogger translated a Népszava article about the CC’s order restrict public access to the original voice record.     

In a somewhat related event, the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional issues, recently leaked a report about the controversial fourth amendment to the Hungarian constitution.  According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, a Venice Commission spokeswoman confirmed that the “draft assessment…was published due to human error and taken off the site after a few hours.”  The spokeswoman went on to explain that the draft does not yet reflect the official opinion of the commission as it has not yet been discussed and amended, which presumably will take place on June 14-15 during the commission’s plenary session in Venice. 

The WSJ article went on to say that the fourth amendment “[contradicts] Hungary’s basic law and international standards.”  One blogger, who translated a report from Népszava, stated:

“The Commission, unlike in other cases, doesn’t even bother to make suggestions that would perhaps remedy some of their objections.  Rather, they indicate that the whole thing is unacceptable.  It has to be abrogated.  Thrown out.” 

Among other things, the fourth amendment, ratified by the Hungarian parliament on March 12 despite protestations, would nullify about 20 years of Constitutional Court decisions.  So here we are again facing a form of censorship, perhaps the most serious to date during the current Orbán administration. 

So what originally started with the creation of an over-arching media council has now developed into erasing two decades of judicial experience and wisdom.  Moreover, it has developed into banning public consumption of vital judicial hearing, as in the case of Miklós Hagyó, Tünde Handó, and the Constitutional Court. 

While many critics of Prime Minister Orbán and his lapdogs let fly accusatory cries of “Dictator!” or even better “Viktator!” I don’t entirely agree.  This is simply political power play.  Prime Minister Orbán and his entourage are ensnaring and sacrificing much of the Hungarian pawns in order to better place the Fidesz bishops and knights.  And they have played the board quite well.  The opposition in Hungary is disorganized and weak, unable to produce any sort of defense or counter attack.  What the major Fidesz players do not seem to regard highly, though, are the opinions of those who are watching the match.  They are the grandmasters.  They are waiting for their turn to sit at the table.  Unfortunately though, while they are waiting to play the rest of Hungary is driven like cattle into the visionary direction of a few.  Evidence of history repeating itself, I suppose. 

A Witch Hunt: Éva Horváth’s Testimony in the Light of Hagyó vs Hungary

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Image source: http://www.brh.org.uk/site/articles/witch-hunting/

 

In January of this year, followers of the trial of Miklós Hagyó and 14 associates of the Budapest Transit Company (BKV) heard the testimony from defendant #6 Éva Horváth.  Her testimony is not remarkable at this moment because she withdrew previous investigation testimonies.  Nearly all of the defendants have in fact withdrawn their investigation testimonies citing that their accusations where made out of fear of harsher treatment from the investigators. 

No, Horváth’s testimony is that much more interesting today because of two things: her described experience in pretrial detention in a Hungarian jail and the recent ruling from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) about Hagyó’s pretrial detention circumstances.

In January, Horváth recounted the intense bigotry and inhumane conditions to which she was subjected because of her Jewish faith.  Besides prison guards dumping trash in her cell and uniquely harassing her Jewish literature and personal belongings, Horváth claimed that she shared a 6×6 meter cell with others in which the temperature reached 59°C (130°F).  She also claimed that guards tried to drug her using Rivotril without her consent. One Hungarian blogger writes about it here in English.

Horváth, who is accused of misappropriating public funds by creating “unnecessary” contracts between BKV and companies which were personally or professionally profitable for Hagyó, said in her testimony that  she was never actually Hagyó’s colleague and that she “could not verbally disgrace” him.

In the wake of ECHR’s decision in Hagyó vs Hungary, where the Court found the Hungarian judicial system in violation of multiple basic rights established and protected by the European Convention on Human rights, the credibility of Horváth and her nightmarish claims are certainly more reasonable. 

I have been documenting this trial for approximately eleven months.  Since the beginning I have heard critics say that Hagyó and the other suspects were corrupt socialists, living relics from the haunting past of Soviet-imposed communism.  I have also heard the few supporters say that Hagyó and others have become entangled in a political witch hunt.  As Horváth described in her testimony, “[The trial is] as in the Middle Ages, when they had thrown someone into the water and then, if she came up, she was a witch, and was burned to death, and if she drowned, then of course they didn’t have to burn to her to death, and it was all the same, whether she’s guilty or innocent.”

According to Fidesz’s track record of over-reaching tentacles ensnaring the autonomy of institutions which were the checks and balances of Hungarian democracy, the overwhelming amount of evidence supporting a gravely corrupt and coercive investigation of this trial, and the obviously lacking material which supports any of the prosecutions accusations, the 15 defendants were thrown into the well.  All of them have resurfaced, only to be tied to the stake. 

In the Wake of Strasbourg’s Decision, Hungary Awaits an Announcement from the Handó Hearing

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Navigating the Hungarian judicial system seems a bit like finding a foothold.

Last Tuesday the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) announced that the prosecutors and courts responsible for the pretrial incarceration of Miklós Hagyó had violated several of his basic rights established and protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

This was excellent news for the entrenched former Deputy Mayor of Budapest and socialist Member of Parliament.

The battle in the ECHR was however just half of this week’s struggle in what many people have dubbed the Hagyó case, actually a trial of 15 associates of the Budapest Transit Company.

Immediately prior the commencement of the trial in June 2012, President of the National Judicial Office Mrs. Tünde Handó – essentially the top judicial administrator – authorized an application from the Budapest court system which requested that the Hagyó case relocate from Budapest.  The official reasoning behind the transfer lies in a controversial amendment to the infantile Hungarian constitution, the Foundational Law, which was hastily created and passed with the emergence of the Fidesz-dominated parliament in May 2010.

The constitution, having been effected in January 2012, permitted the creation of Handó’s position, which allows its fulfiller the capability to promote and demote judges and prosecutors at will, and the ability to transfer cases if the applicant court thinks its system is burdened with too many cases.  On the surface the power appears to promote judicial efficiency.  Great!

In fact, according to a recent judicial review conducted and published by the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, Hungary indeed has one of the speediest judicial systems in the EU.

There is a disconcerting issue about another discovery in the judicial review, though.  According to the analytical criteria of the publication, Hungary’s court system is not so objective, not so fair, and hardly balanced.   Herein lays the widespread criticism of Handó’s ability to transfer cases.  In Hungary, tribunals are usually associated with a political perspective, and the concept of a jury does not exist in the Hungarian judicial system.  The judge overseeing a trial is the courtroom deity, the sole arbiter of guilt or innocence.  If that judge is a party loyalist, which is historically true in Hungary, then the trial’s verdict is rarely perceived as objective.

So, when Handó agreed to transfer the Hagyó case from Budapest, generally considered a politically neutral court system as it is situated in the most politically diverse Hungarian city, to the tribunal in the much smaller and politically monotonous city of Kecskemét, where Fidesz loyalty spoils the wine and the water, eyebrows were naturally raised. However that probably wasn’t the case for Miklós Hagyó, whose head likely fell into his hands.

The Constitutional Court (CC) ordered Handó to testify before their judges last week, presumably in relation to her rationale in transferring the Hagyó case.  When the Court made the announcement that they would hear Handó, proponents of a better judicial system celebrated, since this was perceived as the CC’s defiant stance against Fidesz’s overreaching, power-grabbing efforts to intimidate and overwhelm the independence of the CC.

In a disappointing turn of events however, the CC announced that the hearing would take place behind closed doors.  This generated cries of foul play from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, and other supporters of a more transparent Hungary.  So far, I have not been able to find an announcement about the passing of the hearing between the CC and Handó.

The decision from the European Court of Human Rights comes in a time when major European political organs, human rights watchdogs, and the talking heads of the ominous western media lay waste to every move of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his party loyalists, many of whom have been conspicuously promoted to top administrative positions throughout every branch of government despite their lack of logically necessary qualifications. Perhaps not since the dissolution of the Iron Curtain has the world focused its critical lens on the small Central European country.

Will the judicial system continue to be the submissive lapdog, feigning respect for transparency and independence until its trainer commands it to lie down and play dead? Time will tell how the ECHR decision will affect the Hagyó case, if at all.

The European Court of Human Rights Declares Hungary Guilty!

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Hagyó Wins in Strasbourg!

Just this morning the Second Section of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France delivered its decision on the case Hagyó vs Hungary.  The court announced that it found the Hungarian judiciary guilty and thus in violation of all alleged charges.  The official decision is here.

Hagyó, former Deputy Mayor of Budapest and Member of Parliament, lodged a complaint with the ECHR on September 6, 2010 regarding the circumstances of his pretrial detention.

The former MSZP politician, and main defendant in what has been dubbed the BKV trial, complained that he was denied access to the case file which allegedly contained evidence necessitating his detention.  Moreover, Hagyó asserted that despite his deteriorating health his sentence was repeatedly protracted and visitation rights with his common-law wife were overly restricted.

The Buda Central District Court ordered Hagyó to be detained on May 17, 2010.  He remained in the Budapest Penitentiary until February 23, 2011.  At the advice of medical experts, Hagyó was released into house arrest after the Budapest Regional Court determined that the state of his poor and declining health lessened the danger of absconding.

This decision occurs amidst the frequent international scrutiny about the credibility of the Hungarian judicial system.  The skeptics cite an intentional destruction of the checks and balances between major government institutions, initiated by a hastily affected constitution in January 2012.

Government supporters claim these accusations are false, and that many of Hungary’s critics have misunderstood the facts.

Does this decision further validate the international criticism on the Hungarian judicial system?  Or, as is commonly heard from Fidesz representatives, is this more undeserved bullying from the major powers who wish to see the failure of Hungary?  Only time will tell how this major verdict will affect the judicial process.

European Court of Human Rights Ready to Announce Verdict about the Hagyó Case

According to Népszava, a Hungarian daily, the European Court of Human Rights announced that it will make a verdict on Tuesday, April 23 regarding the trial of former Budapest Deputy Mayor Miklós Hagyó.

via European Court of Human Rights Ready to Announce Verdict about the Hagyó Case.