The International Press Institute (IPI) and the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) today expressed disappointment over the decision of the Hungarian Parliament’s Justice Committee not to advance a bill that would have repealed criminal defamation and established safeguards against the abuse of civil defamation law.
Last month, IPI joined 29 other international press freedom and freedom of expression organisations in writing to the Committee’s chairman, Gyorgy Rubovsky, in support of the measure. The groups stated that the measure would promote “the right of Hungarian citizens to participate in public debate without fear of punishment”.
The Justice Committee on Nov. 30 declined to send the bill to the full Parliament for consideration, according to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), which had spearheaded the reform effort.
Dalma Dojcsák, head of the HCLU’s freedom of speech programme, told IPI that the bill aimed to counter the abuse of Hungary’s defamation laws by politicians. “It is a trend, especially in small towns all over Hungary, that public officials initiate legal proceedings after being publicly criticised,” she said.
According to IPI’s research on defamation laws in Europe, defamation and libel remain criminal offences in Hungary, punishable with imprisonment for up to two years under certain conditions. Defaming public officials does not itself carry more severe punishment. However, Hungarian law provides that while prosecutions for criminal defamation must generally be carried out privately by the victim, cases in which the victim is a public official are to be tried by a public prosecutor.
This imbalance, Dojcsák explained, facilitates the filing of defamation claims by public officials, with the state “taking over the burden of prosecution”. She noted: “The police will conduct the investigation, the prosecutor will make the accusation, and the complainant does not have to pay for all this. Indicted people will be fingerprinted and photographed, as if they had committed some serious crime.”
In proposing the repeal of criminal defamation and libel, the bill considered by the Committee would have rendered this advantage moot. However, the measure also sought to amend the Hungarian Civil Code by prohibiting public officials from initiating defamation claims for criticism related to their public or official activities.
“We’re disappointed that the Justice Committee of the Hungarian Parliament failed to act on an important proposal to protect the free flow of news and information in Hungary and to bring the country’s laws more closely in line with international standards on freedom of expression,” IPI Director of Press Freedom Programmes Scott Griffen said. “The abuse of defamation laws in Europe is being increasingly recognised as a threat to the public’s right to participate in open debate and the media’s ability to hold those in power accountable. We urge Hungarian lawmakers to reconsider this measure in the future.”
The HCLU recently launched a campaign called PolitiKuss (“shut up by politicians”), which highlights examples of cases in which Hungarian officials and government bodies have turned to civil and criminal defamation laws as a response to criticism.
IPI’s “Out of Balance” report last year revealed that the vast majority of EU member states retain criminal defamation laws, which represent a disproportionate interference with freedom of expression. However, recent years have seen clear steps toward legal reform, with the repeal of criminal defamation in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Romania and non-EU-members Norway, FYROM/Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro.
The abuse of civil defamation claims, including via vexatious litigation and exorbitant compensation claims, remains an equal cause for concern from a press freedom and freedom of expression standpoint. IPI and the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) last month welcomed the Greek government’s proposal to overhaul the country’s current civil defamation law, known by journalists as the “press-killer”.