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AFP
May 14, 2020

Hungary social media ‘scaremongering’ detentions spark alarm

World

AFP
May 14, 2020

BUDAPEST: A spate of Hungarian police detentions over alleged scaremongering on social media about the coronavirus pandemic has alarmed opposition politicians who accuse Prime Minister Viktor Orban of abusing the special powers granted to him in March.

According to police, some 86 criminal investigations into scaremongering have been launched since the definition of the offence was widened as part of anti-coronavirus emergency legislation adopted by parliament on March 30.

That law enables Orban to rule by decree until his government decides the virus crisis is over, while new rules set out jail terms of up to five years for spreading fake news about the pandemic or government measures taken to combat it.

A member of the Momentum opposition party was detained in southern Hungary on Wednesday after posting a message about a controversial government policy of clearing non-virus patients out of hospitals to make beds available for Covid-19 sufferers.

"The silencing of critical voices has begun, namely by police action intimidating people who are writing or telling the truth," said Akos Hadhazy, an independent opposition MP, in a Facebook message.

A 64-year-old man in northeastern Hungary was held for hours on Tuesday for allegedly "publishing false facts on a social media site" last month, police said in a statement.

"Police are continuously monitoring the internet," it said.

The man’s post criticised a government decision about its nationwide lockdown, and included the remark: "You are a merciless tyrant, but remember, until now dictators always fall".

He was later released and told local news-site 444.hu that police, who published a video of the man being taken for questioning, had asked him who he was referring to by the word "dictator".

Prosecutors told local media Wednesday that the case had been dropped.

"In the post the man just expressed his opinion, he criticised the government, scaremongering is not about opinions," Julia Kaputa, a lawyer with the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union NGO, told the website.

Prior to the March amendment, "scaremongering" meant "stating or disseminating before the public at large an untrue fact or a fact distorted in such a way that may cause confusion or unrest in a larger group of people".

Under the new rules it is now also considered scaremongering if such statements "hinder or foil the effectiveness" of anti-virus measures.

Last week a 52-year-old woman was also detained after police said she wrote a social media post that claimed several health care institutions will soon close in Hungary.

That could undermine confidence in the public health system, said the police statement.

Hungary’s anti-coronavirus emergency law has drawn fire in Brussels as well as at home. The European Parliament will debate the legislation and rule of law in Hungary on Thursday.