Hungary’s sovereignty law threatens free debate, says rights watchdog

By Thomson Reuters Mar 19, 2024 | 5:27 AM

By Anita Komuves

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary’s new sovereignty law could have “a chilling effect” on free and democratic debate in the country, a panel of constitutional law experts from the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog, said on Tuesday.

Hungary’s parliament passed a law in December which the ruling right-wing Fidesz party said would prevent undue interference in national politics by foreign persons or groups.

The new law set up an authority, the Sovereignty Protection Office, to explore and monitor risks of political interference. The law punishes banned foreign financing for parties or groups running for election with up to three years in prison.

The Council of Europe panel, known as the Venice Commission, said the Sovereignty Protection Office could not be considered independent and this could lead to arbitrary and politically motivated applications of the law.

“There is thus a high risk that the establishment and activities of the Office will have a chilling effect on the free and democratic debate in Hungary,” it said in a statement.

It could “interfere with the privacy of any legal or natural entity and engage in naming and shaming of this entity without being subject to any control and without any review mechanism,” the panel said.

The new law comes as nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has clashed repeatedly with the European Union over democratic rights in Hungary, steps up his Fidesz party’s campaigning ahead of European Parliament elections in June.

Last month, the European Commission said Hungary’s new legislation violated EU laws on democracy and equal rights of EU citizens, and that it would open an infringement procedure. U.S. officials have also criticised the legislation.

In comments which could herald a further clampdown on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Hungary, Tamas Lanczi, the head of the new authority and a close ally of Orban, called on Sunday for a tightening of legislation on donations to NGOs.

(Reporting by Anita Komuves; Editing by Gareth Jones)