STARSBOURG, France (CN) – The European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday that denying journalists access to centers for asylum seekers violates their right to freedom of expression.
Hungarian journalist Illés Szurovecz requested access to the Debrecen Reception Centre in September 2015. He was working for abcug.hu, a Hungarian news website, and wanted to report on the living conditions of asylum seekers.
The Debrecen Reception Centre is located in the eastern part of the country, in Hungary’s second-largest city, Debrecen, and has been in operation since 1995.
The request was made during the height of Europe’s migrant crisis, when atypically high numbers of migrants crossed into the European Union, either via the Mediterranean Sea or over land via the Balkan Peninsula.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, migration was at its highest level since the end of World War II, fueled in part by the ongoing conflict in Syria. During September 2015, the Hungary government estimated that around 140,000 migrants entered the country. Hungary eventually erected a barrier on its border with Serbia and Croatia to stem the flow.
Szurovecz’s request was denied, with the Hungarian Office of Immigration and Nationality claiming that it would violate the privacy and security of the people living in the center, many of whom were fleeing persecution in their home countries.
The journalist appealed but was told by Budapest Administrative and Labour Court that the decision was not subject to judicial review. He then filed a complaint in the European Court of Human Rights in 2016.
The Strasbourg-based court was created by the European Union Convention on Human Rights in 1953 and hears cases on political freedom and human rights.
The seven-judge panel ruled Tuesday that the “‘watchdog’ role of the media assumes particular importance in such contexts since their presence is a guarantee that the authorities can be held to account for their conduct.”
A number of press organizations including the Media Legal Defence Initiative, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and European Centre for Press and Media Freedom submitted third-party comments in favor of Szurovecz.
The rights court found that Hungarian authorities “have failed to demonstrate convincingly that the refusal of permission to enter and conduct research in the Reception Centre…was proportionate to the aims pursued.”
The judges also said the article Szurovecz planned to write “concerned a matter of public interest, where there is little scope for restrictions on freedom of expression under Article 10 § 2 of the Convention.”
Dojcsák Dalma, project leader at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, which assisted Szurovecz in the case, applauded the ruling.
“The verdict is important because it reiterates that journalists have a right not only to freedom of opinion but also to information,” Dalma said in a statement.
The Court of Human Rights also ordered the Hungarian government to pay Szurovecz’s legal fees. The case cannot be appealed.
The UNHCR had previously raised issues with the treatment of asylum seekers at the facility in Debrecen.
Lloyd Dakin, the organization’s regional representative in Central Europe, said asylum seekers’ access to health care “is far too limited.”
“The quality and quantity of food provided in the reception centers is often poor, and does not meet the requirements of persons with special dietary needs such as pregnant women, small children or persons with chronic illnesses,” Dakin said.