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Speak up or stay silent? The need for greater whistleblower protection in Hungary

As two senior government officials in Hungary face trial for corruption, evidence emerges that a colleague would have exposed wrongdoing with effective whistleblower protection in place

Hungary’s president vetoed the government’s whistleblower protection bill on March 2023, sending it back to Parliament (pictured) for reconsideration. Photo: Alex Proimos/Wikimedia Commons

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In one of Hungary’s most serious corruption cases in recent decades, court proceedings began in February 2023 against the former Secretary of State for Justice Pál Völner and the ex-President of the Court Bailiffs Chamber György Schadl. Völner is accused of accepting bribes from Schadl worth at least 83 million forints (US$238,376) in return for appointing Schadl’s choice of bailiffs – the officers responsible for executing the decisions of a court – many of whom lacked appropriate professional experience.

The Schadl-Völner trial includes 20 other defendants accused of criminal conspiracy. Both Völner and Schadl claim innocence. Several others have already been found guilty, after admitting that Schadl helped them into their posts in exchange for payments – sometimes worth hundreds of thousands of euros.

Some of the law enforcement agency wiretaps that eventually uncovered the case were leaked, revealing that many Ministry of Justice employees knew about the wrongdoing, which – according to the prosecution – took place between 2018 and 2021. None dared to contact the ministry’s integrity officer, whom they believed to be involved. One potential whistleblower, who wanted to report Völner and Schadl’s actions anonymously, reportedly felt unable to do so because the IP address could be traced, possibly exposing his identity. Mechanisms to safeguard reporting persons under Hungary’s whistleblower protection legislation clearly weren’t working in practice.

The case highlights the shortcomings of Hungary’s whistleblower law, in place since 2014, including failure to guarantee anonymous reporting and to instil trust in the country’s whistleblowing system. According to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer – EU 2021, 40 per cent of Hungarian citizens thought corruption had increased in the previous 12 months, but only 34 per cent think people can report corruption without fear of retaliation.

Rushed transposition of the EU directive

Fifteen months after the 2021 deadline for transposing the EU directive, Hungary’s government finally submitted a bill to Parliament in March 2023 to comply with the directive’s minimum requirements. However, these do not fully protect whistleblowers, and the government has taken no extra steps to ensure adequate measures. Instead, the proposed legislation has been shaped without consultation, denying stakeholders the chance to inform the law.

The lack of transparency and participation has been shown to result in ineffective legislation, impaired by loopholes and implementation challenges. Only meaningful consultation with a wide range of stakeholders – including civil society organisations, trade unions, and employers or journalists' associations – can ensure that the legislation addresses the challenges and needs of all those most impacted by it, to keep the public safe from harm and corruption.

Wide consultation can also be key in vital public awareness campaigns to promote whistleblowers as acting for the common good. This is particularly important in countries where the cultural perception of whistleblowers is negative – where they are seen as snitches or spies. But instead, Hungary’s government has included a special section in the proposed law, designed to safeguard people who take action to protect the “Hungarian way of life” and the traditional concept of the family. This is highly controversial, as it seems to encourage anonymous reporting against already discriminated people – such as the LGBTQIA+ community.

The provision could fuel sentiments against whistleblowers, reinforcing the misconstrued parallel with informants from communist-era secret police. This undermines legitimate reporting of wrongdoing, as potential whistleblowers seeking to protect society could be deterred from using the same mechanism as those motivated by homophobia.

Presidential veto – but more action needed

Fortunately, there’s a second chance for Hungary’s new whistleblower law. The country’s president vetoed the whistleblower protection bill, sending it back to Parliament for reconsideration after a number of civil society organisations – including Transparency International Hungary – raised their voices against the proposed text. President Katalin Novák deemed the bill as weakening constitutional values, questioning “exactly what kind of conduct” the clause on protecting the “Hungarian way of life” would apply to, and what legal consequences would follow the reports made.

While this is a welcome intervention, Transparency International Hungary emphasises that President Novák’s criticisms don’t go far enough. The proposed law has other flaws. A whistleblower who discloses highly sensitive information, such as classified material or findings from criminal proceedings, is not protected. Nor are those who report wrongdoing through the media or commit a criminal offence to obtain information – for example, breaking a data security code or stealing a document. Employees of certain public authorities, such as investigative agencies, also lack protection if they breach their organisation’s governance rules when blowing the whistle. And the law provides no financial assistance to whistleblowers facing retaliation, such as being fired, unless their monthly net income is below 42,750 forints (US$122).

A second chance for robust protection

Transparency International Hungary strongly urged the government to address both President Novák's concerns and the remaining shortcomings, reformulating a comprehensive whistleblower protection bill, based on wide consultation.

Relying on its substantial majority in Parliament, Hungary’s government could have ignored the president’s objections and voted for the law again without amendment, obliging the president to pass it. But in May 2023, the legislative committee accepted Novák's veto and recommended removal of the bill’s reference to the Hungarian way of life. Parliament subsequently passed the revised law by a large majority.

However, the other flaws in the text remain. As the Völner case shows, without strong and effective whistleblower protection, corruption can thrive – even when others are aware of wrongdoing. Had ministry employees felt safe to report Völner, the case might never have reached such proportions. Passing a robust whistleblower protection law is an essential step for Hungary’s government to safeguard its citizens and their institutions from similar abuses in the future.

Until robust whistleblowing laws are put in place and implemented everywhere, Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) are here to help. No one needs to report corruption alone. In Hungary, for example, the ALAC received a whistleblower report in early 2023 about a doctor in a private health centre demanding extra payments from his patients, above the regular fees. With the whistleblower’s consent, Transparency International Hungary filed a complaint with the National Protection Authority, which promptly opened an investigation.

Transparency International Hungary’s ALAC is supported by Speak Up Europe, an EU-funded project aiming to prevent corruption in high-risk areas in the EU by empowering individuals to speak up about misconduct to public, private and civil society organisations that can take action.

Every year on World Whistleblowers Day, 23 June, we give special recognition the crucial role that whistleblowers play in the fight for a more just world. Stay informed by checking back for more information.