Hungary has been under a state of emergency since early last month. On Monday 30 March Viktor Orbán’s government was given the right to rule by decree, that is, without parliament’s approval. This should not be seen as an abstract fear, as Orbán’s leadership has been eroding democratic norms and undermining the rule of law throughout the last 10 years of his premiership.
Government officials have argued that the new emergency measures can be revoked anytime by parliament, but since the government enjoys a two-thirds majority in the assembly, it is their prerogative to end the emergency which means indefinite rule of law by a far-right authoritarian regime.
Serious concerns have been raised over the capabilities the current leadership now possesses to deprive its people of their rights and freedoms. The so-called ‘coronavirus law’ sets prison terms of up to five years for those convicted for spreading false information about the outbreak and up to eight years for those who block the government’s efforts to contain its spread, prompting renewed fears over press freedom in Hungary. The bill could be used to target critical reporting of the government’s response to the pandemic, given that Hungarian government officials frequently claim that independent journalists are involved in deliberate efforts to slam the Orbán government.
Yale University philosophy professor Jason Stanley claims that “a key ideal of fascist regimes is the destruction of truth.” In his book ‘How Fascism Works’ Stanley says that “truth lies in the heart of a healthy democracy and when your belief system is shot through with lies, you are not free.” Freedom requires knowledge, and in order to act freely in the world and make rational and informed decisions you need to have access to various sources of knowledge, even those that have the potential to challenge government authority. So, Stanley argues that “freedom requires truth, and so to smash freedom you must smash truth.” By stopping independent journalists from operating freely without fearing imprisonment, what Orbán is essentially doing is smashing truth and therefore freedom.
Zoltan Batka, who writes for Nepszava, a small daily newspaper says “this law creates a lot of uncertainty because you do not know how decisions will be made. “Even if you spread true information in a distorted way which could curb the protection of Hungary, you face jail time. But who defines what ‘distortion’ means?”
From the start, this government has ignored and downplayed the crisis. Despite the onset of the virus, only around 6,000 people have been tested and the Hungarian health care system has already been stretched to its limits by a still relatively small number of cases. Furthermore, Orbán has publicly stated that immigration is to blame for the spread of the infectious decease. Asked during a radio interview why Hungary has closed its universities but not schools in response to the virus outbreak Orbán said it was because “there are lots of foreigners there”. “Our experience is that primarily foreigners brought in the disease, and that it is spreading among foreigners”.
Covid-19 is being used as a constitutional moment for the government to maintain prolonged exercise of power and reinforce its oppressive narrative upon citizens. That raises concerns over the future of democracy in Europe. Orbán’s power grab is severely affecting marginalised groups. On April 2, the ruling Fidesz party proposed prohibiting transgender people from changing their sex on birth certificates and other personal documents. Banning gender reassessment is a direct attack on transgender rights, which is seen by the community as outrageous and deliberate. Not only it is directed at silencing the trans community by not allowing them to change their gender on their personal documents- it also seeks to erase it and deny its existence.
The legislation seeks to eliminate recognition of the trans community by making official documentations like passports and drivers licenses refer to ‘sex at birth’ as opposed to referring to gender identity; the president was explicit in saying one cannot alter ‘scientific facts’ that they take to denote gender, i.e. assigned sex. This is an intentional act of erasure against the trans community as such legislation denies the very existence of transgender persons. This, in turn, will lead to silencing of the trans community. What I mean by silencing is that the testimony of an individual will be undermined, basically meaning that whenever they voice resilience to oppression and systemic harms exercised against them, such complaints will fall on deaf ears. Orbán’s government achieve this by delegitimising the trans community- they make it such that through their legislation trans people cannot claim to be harmed, because they are not regarded as a ‘real’ group in society.
Trans advocates fear denial of legal gender recognition- which is critical for preventing the harassment that can happen if someone’s appearance does not match their documents- is the next step, as Fidesz has a two-thirds majority in parliament and can easily implement such law. How is then the suppression of freedom of expression and the belittling of trans rights, in any way seen as tackling this deadly virus? It simply is not. It is clear how the far-right leadership of Viktor Orbán is seizing this opportunity to target opinions that may challenge his authority and repress views that defend trans rights. Increased social tensions in society caused by the coronavirus are seen as a chance to grab power in order to further exacerbate the scapegoating of the vulnerable by bringing into focus issues without the remotest relevance to the pandemic. These have now become the epicentre of legislation, while many are worried that Orbán will not use the power he has acquired to improve the country’s response to the crisis.
While much of the world has shut down in the face of the pandemic, history hasn’t stopped. The coronavirus is understandably consuming an enormous share of our collective attention right now; this presents an opportunity for bad faith actors to act in their interests at the expense of the vulnerable. This is not only because they can do so while our attention is drawn elsewhere, but also because they know that even though their actions do not escape our attention, they are likely to be met with less scrutiny as our loved ones, right and left, are losing their lives.