Budapest, Hungary — Independent media and rights groups on Wednesday condemned legislation passed by Hungary’s right-wing populist government that would allow authorities to investigate and prosecute people accused of undermining the country’s sovereignty.
The coalition government made up of the Fidesz and KDNP parties approved the “Sovereignty Protection Law” on Tuesday. It calls for the creation of a new government authority that will have the power to collect information on any group or individual benefiting from foreign funding and influencing public debate.
The measure requires Hungarian secret services to assist authorities in their investigations and allows prison sentences of up to three years for anyone found guilty of violating the new law.
Opponents of the legislation have compared it to Russia’s “foreign agents” law and say its broad language can be used to arbitrarily target government critics. The country’s right-wing Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has long been accused of taking control of the majority of Hungary’s media and building an autocratic political system that undermines democratic standards.
Representatives of ten independent media outlets signed an open letter denouncing the law, saying the Hungarian government had unfairly accused them of “serving foreign interests.”
“This is a deliberate lie, which defames not only the editorial offices that carry out vital work for democracy, but also the Hungarians who watch, listen and read their content,” the media wrote, adding that independent editorial offices in Hungary have demonstrated transparency and have not demonstrated transparency. benefited from “hidden funds or subsidies”.
The Hungarian government says the law aims to prevent political parties from receiving funding from abroad for their election campaigns, as it claims was done by a coalition of six opposition parties ahead of the 2022 parliamentary elections which allowed Orbán to handily win a fourth consecutive term in power. .
In November, Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, urged the Hungarian government to withdraw the bill, saying it “poses a significant risk to human rights and should be abandoned.
If the law were passed, Mijatovic wrote at the time, it would give the Hungarian government “even more opportunities to silence and stigmatize independent voices and opponents.”
A group of Hungarian non-governmental organizations also condemned the law in a letter signed by seven rights groups, including Amnesty International, Transparency International and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.
The groups called the legislation “nothing more than a political propaganda project based on secret service methods” and accused it of violating Hungary’s constitutional, international and European obligations. They pledged to take legal action against the law and “provide support and assistance to targeted civilian communities, activists and media actors.”
The law’s passage comes as Hungary remains in a protracted struggle with the European Union, which has frozen billions of dollars in funding for Budapest over concerns that Orbán’s government has overseen democratic backsliding and trampled the rights of the LGBTQ+ community and asylum seekers.
In a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the European Parliament’s four largest political groups urged the Commission to abandon a plan to release some of the frozen funds after the Hungarian government carried out reforms to its judicial system.
Lawmakers pointed to the Hungarian sovereignty law as another sign that Orbán had not changed course, noting that the new sovereignist authority would be under his direct control and would endow him with “extensive powers without any democratic oversight.”
“It is obvious that a fair allocation of European funds in Hungary is practically impossible,” the lawmakers wrote.