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Hungary: 'Critics silenced' in social media arrests as EU debates Orban's powers

Africanews logo Africanews 14/05/2020
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Opposition politicians in Hungary are alarmed by a spate of detentions for alleged scaremongering on social media about the coronavirus pandemic.

They fear that voices critical of the government are being silenced and accuse Prime Minister Viktor Orban of abusing special powers granted to him in March.

At least three people have been arrested at their homes and questioned for several hours over social media posts.

Police have said they are investigating 86 cases under emergency legislation adopted on March 30 for allegedly publishing "false information". "Police are continuously monitoring the internet," a statement said.

The new measure widens a pre-existing offence, giving the authorities powers to clamp down on "alarmist comments".

Critical voices 'silenced'

On Wednesday a member of the Momentum opposition party was detained in southern Hungary, over a social media post about a controversial government policy of clearing non-virus patients out of hospitals to make beds available for COVID-19 sufferers.

"The silencing of critical voices has begun, namely by police action intimidating people who are writing or telling the truth," said Akos Hadhazy, an independent opposition MP, in a Facebook message.

The previous day a 64-year-old man was held for hours in northeastern Hungary over a message posted last month, criticising the government's lockdown policy. It included the remark: "You are a merciless tyrant, but remember, until now dictators always fall". Prosecutors said on Wednesday that the case had been closed.

Last week a 52-year-old woman was also detained after writing a social media post claiming that several health care institutions will soon close in Hungary. Police said the comment could undermine confidence in the public health system.

European Union 'closely monitoring' Hungary

The new legislation implementing the country's state of emergency considerably reinforces Orban's powers for an unlimited period.

The European Parliament has been debating the legislation and the rule of law in Hungary on Thursday.

The EU’s top rule of law official told MEPs the bloc was monitoring emergency powers granted to governments to combat the coronavirus, to see if they are removed as countries ease confinement.

"The general states of emergency with exceptional powers granted to governments should gradually be removed or replaced by more targeted and less intrusive measures," Values and Transparency Commissioner Vera Jourova said.

She added that "the case of Hungary raises particular concerns" and that "on a daily basis, we are assessing whether we can take legal action".

The Hungarian prime minister was invited to take part in the session but declined, offering to send his justice minister instead -- a request denied by the Parliament's President David Sassoli.

MEPs have previously declared Budapest's emergency law as "totally incompatible with European values".

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