Extraordinary challenges require extraordinary responses. The draft law known as the Bill on Protection against the Coronavirus (Bill T/9790) to extend the state of emergency is the Hungarian government’s response to the extreme challenges posed by the spread of the Coronavirus. Under such extraordinary circumstances, which neither the Hungarian society nor the country’s economy have seen for decades, decisive action is clearly needed. There is no time for political debates, be it party or policy-related. Today, the most important thing is to contain the epidemic and mitigate the damage.
These days, in Hungary and around the world, the operation of companies providing essential services for citizens is being closely monitored. Therefore, the presence of soldiers and other state officials at some Hungarian corporations, though unusual, and understandably disturbing for some, can be considered an acceptable solution.
However, not even the state of emergency may outweigh the respect for the rule of law and the remaining constitutional safeguards in Hungary. We agree with those who expect more guarantees in order to prevent a scenario in which the regulation that enables prompt and effective state intervention becomes a hotbed for governmental endeavours to further reduce the accountability of power.
The most disquieting issue with the government’s bill is that it would extend the state of emergency for an indefinite period and would accord special powers to the government, including the possibility to rule by decree and without the Parliament’s approval. We consider this a bad idea. We believe that the state of emergency should be limited to a predefined period and it should be subject to parliamentary review at predetermined intervals. The recurring extension by the Parliament of the scope of government decrees issued in the state of emergency by 30 days each time seems appropriate. Introducing the state of emergency for an indefinite period would only be necessary when the Parliament is unable to assemble, a fearful prospect that will hopefully not materialise.
We are also aware of the fact that, due to the danger of epidemics, freedom of speech cannot be fully exercised, for example, in rallies. It is also clear that the distribution of false or distorted information must be severely punished, especially in the current situation. It is important, however, that if the government deems it necessary to more severely sanction fear-mongering, it should employ the current sanctioning standards, according to which only those rumours are punishable that can potentially cause unrest among people. There is no need to allow for the application of imprisonment of up to five years to those who spread rumours that ”undermine the effort to protect the country in a state of emergency”. The introduction of this new and unusual standard for the imposition of criminal punishments allows for the conflation of government-critical information with fear-mongering. While the former is one of the cornerstones of the rule of law and a value that requires unconditional protection, it is without a doubt that the latter must be prosecuted.