May 11, 2020 / 5:26 PM / 16 days ago

Hungary summons Nordic diplomats over rule-by-decree row

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary summoned the ambassadors of four Nordic countries on Monday over their countries’ criticism of a controversial law that empowers Prime Minister Viktor Orban to act by decree against the novel coronavirus.

Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said on Sunday that he would summon the diplomats as Hungary “wanted no pitiful hypocritical tutelage” and reiterated Budapest would go its own way.

The law, which authorises Orban to bypass parliament in taking action to contain the virus and mitigate its after-effects, has provoked international criticism.

“When countries use the COVID-19 situation for actions that undermine fundamental rights, we insist on drawing attention to that,” Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod told Reuters.

“Of course, the problem is not only related to COVID-19, but the situation has worsened because the Hungarians have taken a number of measures which among other things risk undermining press freedom,” Kofod said.

He added that there must be consequences - including financial ones - if fundamental values are not respected.

During Monday’s meeting, the Norwegian foreign ministry told Reuters that Hungarian State Secretary Peter Sztaray said he believed a March 6 letter by the five Nordic foreign ministers misrepresented the essence and formalities with regard to the Hungarian corona emergency act.

“The Nordic ambassadors explained and reiterated the concern of the Nordic countries concerning the Hungarian corona emergency act, particularly the unlimited in time emergency powers and the provisions concerning the criminalisation of incorrect information, putting journalists under additional stress,” a Norwegian foreign ministry spokeswoman said.

The Council of Europe, the continent’s main human rights body, warned Hungary about its democratic backsliding and issues over freedom of expression in a March 24 letter by Secretary General Marija Pejcinovic Buric.

The foreign ministers of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden wrote to Buric on May 6 saying they “share the concerns expressed in that letter. Even in an emergency situation the rule of law must prevail.”

Orban has been at odds with European Union institutions since taking power in 2010, going head to head over economic policies, alleged corruption, immigration and his ever-expanding influence over all walks of life.

Orban has told Buric that the law does not give him unlimited powers and can be withdrawn by parliament - where his Fidesz party holds a two-thirds majority - at any time.

The ambassadors of Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway attended Monday’s meeting. Iceland’s mission to Hungary is based in Vienna.

(The story corrects reference to Council of Europe in paragraph nine).

Additional reporting by Stine Jacobsen and Nikolaj Skydsgaard in Copenhagen, Gwladys Fouche in Oslo, Tarmo Virki in Tallinn and Simon Johnson in Stockholm, editing by Larry King and Giles Elgood

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