BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary’s parliament granted nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban the right to rule by decree on Monday to fight the coronavirus, ignoring calls by opponents and rights groups to put a timeframe on the extra powers.
President Janos Ader, an Orban ally, signed the legislation extending a state of emergency after it was approved by parliament, dominated by Orban’s Fidesz party. Ader said it was in line with international treaties and Hungary’s constitution.
The law has triggered criticism from opposition parties, rights groups and the Council of Europe, Europe’s main rights forum, because it does not set a specific limit on the time the additional powers will be in force.
It also imposes jail terms of up to five years on those hindering measures to curb the spread of the virus or spreading false information that could upset people or hinder the fight against the virus.
Rights groups said this might be used to muzzle journalists as remaining independent media are forced to cut staff and budgets while media loyal to the government continue to receive taxpayers’ money.
Since he took power in 2010, Orban has built media he can control, using legal levers, ownership changes and advertising money for more loyal media coverage. The economic impact of the coronavirus could accelerate the shake-up of the media, journalists say.
The government has rejected the criticism, saying the law empowers it to adopt only measures needed to fight the virus, and that parliament can revoke the special powers.
“This is an authorisation limited both in time and scope ... as it is solely related to the coronavirus, and you are crying a dictatorship,” state secretary Bence Retvari told opposition parties before the vote.
Justice Minister Judit Varga said it was “very damaging fake news” that the law is intended to neutralise the national assembly.
Orban, who has gradually increased his power in a decade in office, has often been in conflict with the European Union and rights organisations over his perceived erosion of democratic checks and balances and the rule of law.
Opposition lawmakers said they back the government’s overall fight against the coronavirus but wanted a time limit placed on the government’s special powers, which parliament can extend if necessary. Parliament rejected all opposition amendments.
President Ader said the government’s special authorisation would end once the epidemic is over and was limited to dealing with the epidemic and its fallout.
“The controlling role of Parliament and the government’s duty to report will remain in place during the epidemic,” Ader said. Hungary has reported 447 coronavirus cases and 15 deaths.
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Some media companies, facing severe short-term liquidity problems, have already scrapped plans for 2020.
Central Media, one of Hungary’s largest media groups, has put journalists on reduced hours and cut salaries by up to a quarter, several sources told Reuters.
Pesti Hirlap, a tabloid, has told staff it will cut jobs and switched to online-only mode. Executives at HVG, a weekly that also runs a popular web site, warned staff of budget cuts, according to several sources.
“Press freedom could fall victim to the coronavirus,” Miklos Hargitai, chair of the Hungarian Journalists Association (MUOSZ), told Reuters.
State media have an annual budget of around 90 billion forints ($280 million). The public media budget is not affected by the crisis this year, a government spokesman said.
Loyal outlets receive state advertisements regardless of their audience size, data shows.
“The coronavirus epidemic will have a devastating effect on Hungarian independent media,” said Agnes Urban, director of the Mertek Media Monitor think tank. “This can become critical for independent outlets within 2-3 months as most lack a rich owner.”
Additional reporting by Anita Komuves; Editing by Alison Williams and Timothy Heritage
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