Rights Court Slams Hungary for Suspending Reporter Credentials

The European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday that Hungary violated six journalists’ rights by suspending their credentials to cover parliament after they questioned lawmakers outside designated areas.

The Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest. (Photo via Epistola8/Wikipedia Commons)

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Tamás Fábián and his colleagues just wanted answers. The Hungarian Central Bank had allegedly made illicit payments to companies connected to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government and Hungarian journalists wanted to hold their lawmakers to account. 

Their questioning led to a ban from Hungary’s parliament building. Without an avenue to contest the ban in a domestic court, the group filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled Tuesday that their rights to freedom of expression had been violated. 

“Freedom of the press…enables everyone to participate in the free political debate which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society,” the seven-judge panel wrote in a unanimous decision. 

Fábián, who works for the Hungarian news service Index, applauded the ruling in an interview. 

“I am happy for the ruling. Even if it happened years after the fact, it still feels nice to know that injustice has been acknowledged,” he said.

In April 2016, Fábián and five other journalists from various Hungarian news outlets posed questions about the payments to Hungarian lawmakers inside the country’s parliament building. According to László Kövér, the speaker of parliament and member of Orbán’s far-right party, the journalists did not have permission to record or be in certain areas of the building and suspended their press accreditation. 

“As a result of recording without permission and the open and deliberate breach of the rules, the speaker suspended the journalist’s right of entry as of 26 April 2016. In order to maintain the accreditation of your media outlet, I request that you respect the parliamentary press regulations,” Kövér wrote to the editors of Index, 24HU, HVG and other outlets. 

The journalists requested and were denied access for a June 2016 parliamentary session when the body was slated to discuss an amendment to Hungary’s constitution that would give the government broad powers to combat terrorism. Orbán’s government has been widely criticized for grabbing power and shifting the country away from democracy. 

Nearly 20 journalists or entire media outlets have been banned from parliament since Orbán was elected in 2012. The national court system has no jurisdiction to intervene.

The suspension of the six journalists was withdrawn in September 2016. Fábián says he’s happy that the court has shown that this practice goes against European norms. 

The Strasbourg-based Court of Human Rights ruled in an unrelated case in 2017 that members of the press can only be barred from parliament buildings if they pose a danger to public safety or to the safety of the lawmakers themselves. 

The court, which was created by the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights and hears cases on political freedom and human rights, acknowledged Tuesday that the Hungarian journalists had broken the rules of decorum but found that wasn’t sufficient to bar them from being able to do critical journalistic work. 

“The Court concludes that the interference with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression was not ‘necessary in a democratic society’ within the meaning of Article 10 of the Convention and that, accordingly, there has been a violation of this provision,” the ruling states.

Tuesday’s ruling also criticized Kövér for failing to offer an appeals procedure and not including a time period for the ban. The court ordered Hungary to pay the group’s legal expenses. 

“The media are the primary means by which the public can be informed about what happens in these bodies, and they shine a light on how elected representatives conduct themselves in these contexts,” said Padraig Hughes, legal director of Media Legal Defence Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to journalists that intervened in the case, in a statement. 

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