- Stay updated on the latest news from Hungary by signing up for the free InsightHungary newsletter:
As we reported on Tuesday, a 64-year-old man was detained by police over a Facebook post he made in April that was critical of the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic. The man's laptop was confiscated and he was held by police for several hours, but was later released and all charges were dropped.
The next day, five police officers arrived at the home of another man in the city of Gyula, in southeast Hungary, and took him into custody on suspicion of fearmongering. Police told the man, János Csóka-Szűcs, who is physically disabled and has diabetes, that he was being investigated for a post he made in a closed Facebook group on April 20. His home was searched and his laptop, mobile phone and a pendrive were confiscated.
In the closed Facebook group, Csóka-Szűcs had shared an invitation posted by independent MP Ákos Hadházy to a protest which was held in Budapest in opposition to a government order to evacuate some 36,000 hospital beds to make room for potential coronavirus patients. In a comment on the shared post, Csóka-Szűcs wrote, "They emptied 1,170 beds in Gyula as well." (According to Narancs.hu, nearly 1,200 beds were indeed set aside for potential patients at a hospital in Gyula which was designated a pandemic hospital by the Human Resources Minister.)
Csóka-Szűcs was held by police for four hours, and was asked whether he belonged to any political party or organization.
"I didn't understand what that has to do with anything," he said. "When there was the...protest in Budapest, we went with a couple of cars to the Gyula government building as well, which is what the Facebook post was about. I was really surprised by how many police were there, and they recorded everything."
During his interrogation, Csóka-Szűcs, who is a local member of the Momentum party, told police he wanted Momentum MEPs Anna Donáth and Katka Cseh to be informed that he was in custody. He was released shortly thereafter, but police did not return the disabled man to his home.
"My wife doesn't have a drivers' license...so I slowly, haltingly walked home while keeping next to the fences," he said.
The case against Csóka-Szűcs is still active, and his laptop and other belongings are still in police custody. Police stated that 86 charges of fearmongering have been filed since the emergency legislation was passed on March 30.
New special economic zones could further deprive municipalities of revenue
The government has submitted a bill which would allow for the creation of special economic zones (SEZ) countrywide in areas containing investments of "special economic significance". The minimum value of such investments is Ft 5 billion (€14 million), down from the previous minimum of Ft billion (€282 million), according to the bill submitted late Tuesday night by Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén.
Control of the SEZs and the business taxes paid within them will be transferred from the municipalities to county governments, which would have the authority to invest the new funds in local developments and to support local organizations. A maximum of 3 percent of the funds may be used for operating costs of the county governments.
Fidesz has a majority on each of Hungary's 19 county councils, prompting critics of the measures to
worry that the government seeks to deprive opposition-led municipalities of authority and funding. The government argues the establishment of such zones will help to restart the economy and protect and create jobs.
The National Association of Local Governments, which represents more than 50 percent of the local governments in Hungary, expressed its disappointment that the government had not heeded its recommendations at negotiations over the bill on Monday. The Association wrote on its website that transferring ownership rights from municipalities to the counties without providing compensation was "disproportionate", and that real estate necessary for implementing investments could be "transferred to the county in accordance with the legal regulations already in force".
The changes would not apply to investments made in Budapest, cities with county rights, or cities with populations of over 50,000.
A government decree in April established an SEZ around a Samsung SDI factory in the Budapest suburb of Göd. The mayor of the city, Csaba Balogh (Momentum), argued that the measure would deprive the town of one-third of its budget and filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court, while independent MP Bernadett Szél has turned to the ombudsman in the matter. Soon after establishing the SEZ, the government announced it would invest Ft 42 billion (€118 million) in infrastructural developments around the area of the Samsung plant, circumventing the local government.
Jourová: Hungary's emergency powers law "raises particular concerns"
Hungary's emergency powers law "raises particular concerns”, and the European Commission is monitoring the situation on a daily basis and assessing whether they should take legal action, EC vice-president Vera Jourová said at a debate of the European Parliament in Brussels Thursday morning.
MEPs gathered to discuss Hungary's controversial emergency powers law, which in March gave the government the power to rule by decree for an indefinite period. The EP sought to determine whether the legal measures taken under the pretext of coronavirus response are compatible with EU values and the rule of law.
Jourová, who the Hungarian government previously claimed saw no problems with the Hungarian law, said that as European countries begin easing lockdown restrictions, "states of emergency with exceptional powers granted to governments should gradually be removed or replaced by more targeted and less intrusive measures."
"This is even more important for Hungary given the lack of a clear time limit for the state of danger," she said.
No representative of the Hungarian government was present at the debate after Prime Minister Viktor Orbán refused an invitation, saying he was too busy dealing with the coronavirus crisis to attend. Justice Minister Judit Varga wrote to EP president David Sassoli asking to speak on Hungary's behalf, but Sassoli refused, saying that the established practice of such debates requires the head of state or government to be present. A volley of letters ensued with Varga insisting on attending the debate, and she later claimed that her planned speech was "banned" by the EP.
"This says it all about the European Parliament's staged procedure," Varga wrote on Facebook. "An institution which wanted to lecture Hungary about the rule of law and democracy on several occasions does not even pay attention to have the appearance of a fair trial."
Jourová and other MEPs raised concerns over parts of Hungary's emergency powers affecting the free media. While it is important to act against disinformation, Jourová said, such measures should not limit the functioning of the press. Hungary's media situation has been deteriorating for years, and has only worsened due to the new legislation, she added.
Other MEPs urged the launching of Article 7 procedures against Hungary, with one member citing the arrest of two Hungarian citizens for posts they made on Facebook.
At a press conference on Thursday, Orbán's chief-of-staff Gergely Gulyás announced that the government could bring an end to the state of emergency at the end of June depending on how the pandemic developed.