Working as a journalist during the pandemic COVID-19, it is a real challenge for those who believe in the freedom of the press. As soon as the virus has spread all around the world, some public authorities have decided to interfere with one of the most important criterias of journalism: to hold opinions and impart information. This has happened especially in Hungary, where I’m actually doing my volunteer. Indeed, in mid march the first Hungary’s Coronavirus Emergency Law imposed punishments of up to five years in prison for spreading fake news – causing the immediate reaction from the European Union. But in what measure this law has affected the freedom of the press? What are the conditions under which journalists are gathering news across the country?
Freedom of press data
When I first came in Hungary to start my volunteering in journalism, I already knew it wasn’t the place where I could find the perfect rapresentation of what journalism should be. Despite becoming part of European Union in 2004 and so agreeing to the Charter of Fundamental rights, year after year Hungary has increasingly restricted press freedom. As data from reporter sans frontières shows, in 2006 Hungary was ranked 10 out of 161 in terms of press freedom. By 2012 Hungary’s ranking had fallen to 56th out of 178. In 2019, Hungary has been ranked 89 out of 180.
During the pandemic the control over the press has become even tighter, as in mid march a new rule has taken place. Anyone who spreads fake news can go to prison up to five years. As we know, the freedom of press can actually lead to fake news, which can also become dangerous for those who believe on it, especially now that a new and unknown virus has emerged. However, Hungarian legislation seems to be just a way to limit the freedom of journalists in reporting news, as it doesn’t give a clear definition of what a fake news is.
Threats against journalists
Further more, in the same period, threats against journalists have been among the violations against press freedom. According to the informations collected from Reporter sans frontieres, journalist of the weekly Magyar Hang, Balázs Gulyás, was treated by Hír TV, a channel close to the government. Meanwhile in Belgium, the journalist of La Libre Belgique, Maria Udrescu, was victim of several vulgar messages after one of her coverage in Hungary.
Access to information
Another issue for those who are gathering news across the country is access to information. As it is known, independent journalists can’t freely ask politicians in the Parliament or attend different events. Likewise, Government politicians give interviews only to government-critical media channels and, as Politico Europe revealed, on 2 March 2020 Hungarian state media staff received internal e-mails, ordering them to ask for permission before writing on Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and to send draft content for approval before publishing on migration, EU politics, terrorism and church issues. It was also said to not use Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch as information sources. Referring specificly to the pandemic has not been easier; Hungary has been one of the few countries in the EU that for a while hadn't published regional data on the coronavirus infections. Only at the end of march, the governement has started to be more transparent on that topic.
One of the main reasons which has lead Hungary to this scenario is the lack of a pluralism in the media. As Atlatszo.hu, member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, shows, in 2006, only 8 among the first 25 editorial groups were aligned to the Fidesz/Christian Democrats party. In 2018, 22 of these were close to the government. This has happened as a consequence of the new law introduced by Viktor Orban in 2010. So, at present, if we exclude a few political weeklies, such as Magyar Narancs, as well as a few independent news sites (Index.hu, 444.hu, Atlatszo.hu, Abcug.hu), the only group of media which still try to give informations in a critical way is the private commercial television channel RTL Klub.
It’s only thanks of them if Hungarian people have become aware of the covid-19 emergency. As pro-government media were concentrated in the two first covid-19 case of the iranians, indipendent media denonciated the low number of tests taken and the lack of enough materials and hospitals to deal with a state of emergency, showing that giving an impartial and correct information in Hungary during the covid-19 is harder than before, but still it has been essential to protect the public interest.