Masks on again, new president for Momentum, pressure mounts between Brussels and Budapest, UN says press freedom under threat

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Government reinstates mask mandate as Covid cases jump

The government decided to reinstate a general mask mandate indoors in public spaces from Saturday, November 20, Gergely Gulyas, head of the Prime Minister's Office, said at a press conference.

“Masks will be required in shops, museums, cinemas and theaters, and at service providers where more than five people are present,” Gulyas declared.

“The decision on whether to require masks in schools will be left to the directors of the institutions,” he added.

The government has also decided that security cards would be required to attend events of more than 500 people.

As a third measure, the government also said that booster shots would be made mandatory in the healthcare sector.

The decisions were announced shortly after the country’s Chief Medical Officer, Cecilia Muller announced that the Delta-Plus variant of the COVID-19 has been detected in Hungary, and she urged every citizen to get vaccinated.

“The hospitals are filling up quickly and the number of infections are on the rise, I sincerely cannot imagine what would be needed for people to understand how important it is to go and get the shot?” She said in a video posted on the government’s Facebook page.

The number of new infections skyrocketed in Hungary, with numbers comparable to the devastating third wave of the pandemic.

From November 1, the Hungarian government introduced three measures aimed at restraining the fourth wave of the pandemic: companies can mandate the vaccination of employees, the wearing of face masks are mandatory in public transport, and a ban on visits has been imposed in healthcare institutions.

From November 15, the government introduced the compulsory wearing of face masks in every Office of Government Issued Documents.

From November 22 to 28, hospital vaccination points welcome those who have still not received their shots against the COVID-19.  They can get the jab without prior registration or appointment.

The county registered a record 12,637 of COVID-19 cases in a 24-hour span, raising the national total to 1,044,852.

In the past 24 hours, 176 people have died from the disease, taking the death toll to 33,519 in the country, while 856,330 have recovered.

Currently, 6,840 patients are being treated in hospitals, including 664 on ventilators (somewhat under the same period of 2020), figures from the government's coronavirus information website showed.

As of Wednesday, 6,057,367 people have received at least the first shot of a vaccine, while 5,808,536 had two jabs, and more than 2,043,213 got their booster shot, according to the website.

Anna Donáth elected new president of Momentum

“Momentum held a presidential meeting today, and according to the decision of the delegates, the next president of Momentum will be Anna Donáth,” Momentum said in a statement.

Anna Donáth has been an essential member of Momentum since 2016, a vice-president of the party from 2018 to 2020 and a MEP since May 2019."

Momentum elected a new president after the resignation of its former president, András Fekete-Győr, following the opposition primary elections.

Fekete-Győr was replaced because he received only 3.39% of the votes in the primary election to choose the new prime ministerial candidate, while the party performed quite well in the race for parliamentary candidates.

Besides Anna Donáth, Anna Orosz and Gábor Hollai also ran for the presidency.

“I was elected President of Momentum, Thank you for your support!” Donáth said on her Facebook page following the vote.

“I have been an active member of Momentum for five years, and this community has been the most defining part of my life for five years. Until the change of government, I can continue to serve now as president and fight for a fairer, more humane and greener Hungary,” she added.

There is a lot of work ahead of us in the next six months, as there is no change of government without a strong and lovable Momentum, which works in the interest of the people, she also said.

“The country cannot afford four more years under the reign of Fidesz. The following choice is crucial. We cannot let Hungary down, because it is also our country,” she concluded.

EU mounts pressure on Hungary in rule of law discord

The government has taken three blows from the EU in the last few days, all of which makes its position in the long disputes with Brussels over the rule of law less and less tenable.First, the European Commission has written to Hungary - and also to Poland - about problems with the independence of the judiciary, with the lack of prosecution of corruption, and deficiencies in public procurement which threaten the EU’s financial interests. 

The two letters, seen by Politico, are an informal first step toward triggering the mechanism adopted last year that allows the EU to cut back on funds because of rule-of-law concerns.

In the letter sent to the Hungarian government, the Commission described systemic problems and a general lack of accountability for corruption, posing sixteen specific questions to Hungarian authorities on issues such as conflicts of interest, who benefits from EU funding, and how judicial review by independent courts is guaranteed. 

The Commission also underlined that the bloc’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, found that in the period of 2016 to 2020, Hungary’s financial recommendations in the areas of regional development and agriculture were almost eight times the EU average.

On Tuesday, a landmark decision was made by the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg. Hungarian Judge Csaba Vasvári, who fought for judicial independence, asked the ECJ in connection with a verdict brought against him by the Hungarian Supreme Court, the Curia.

The latter’s decision had been in accordance with the will of Chief Prosecutor Péter Polt.

Vasvári turned to the ECJ with a number of questions on issues of judicial independence, which Polt, and the government said was unacceptable.

The ECJ ruled that the Curia's judgment should not be taken into account and that it was contrary to EU law to initiate disciplinary proceedings against a national judge on the basis of seeking guidance from the ECJ for a preliminary ruling.

The verdict is a huge blow to the government.

Finally, in a long letter, Viktor Orbán called on Ursula von der Leyen and the European Commission to suspend infringement proceedings against Hungary, which "undermine the territorial and national integrity of the Member States and the protection of the security of their citizens.”

The European Commission has launched multiple such proceedings, mostly in connection with the rule of law, and has even turned to the European Court of Justice in mid-November for non-compliance with last December's verdicts on asylum seekers.

But the letter had little effect on the Commission. No reply has yet been given in writing, but Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas said at a press conference in Strasbourg that there was not much to talk about:

There is no political room for maneuver in infringement proceedings. These are strictly defined processes. The only way to close such a procedure is to resolve the case on which it is based. Infringement proceedings may not be terminated for political reasons or by letters, according to him.

United Nations top expert concerned over media freedom in Hungary

UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression Irene Khan summed up her visit in Hungary and concluded that the government was trying to distort the media market in its favor, which raises serious concerns ahead of the 2022 general elections.

During the next general elections, scheduled for April 2022, the way in which the Hungarian government has intervened in the media market over the past decade could pose a human rights risk, said Irene Khan in a press conference in Budapest.

“Information cannot be monopolized in a democracy,” Khan underlined.

"I see a distorted media environment in Hungary where pluralism, diversity and independence of media is being questioned," Khan also said.

"Therefore it is important to ensure that in the context of the elections, there is fair reporting, there is access to all the candidates on a fair and equal basis, and that public service media ... maintains an impartial approach to the different parties and candidates,” she added.

The full report will not be available before next June, but Khan emphasized that even then, before the next spring election, care must be taken to ensure that candidates have equal access to media and that voters are able to receive information from many different sources. 

She also mentioned that "Freedom of expression which political candidates have should not be abused to create a toxic environment of violence and hatred".

On behalf of the government, Justice Minister Judit Varga reacted on her Facebook page: “It seems that a toxic environment for Madam Commissioner means a country where the liberal mainstream is not a hegemony but remains only as much present as the conservative side. 

We regret if some people cannot find here the same liberal hegemony they got used to at home, in the 'developed' West. For us, however, media pluralism means the equal visibility of the different views.”