Another win for HCLU: ban of journalists from Parliament violates European standards

The speaker of the House violated the freedom of the press when banning journalists from the Hungarian Parliament building, ruled the European Court of Human Rights today. The six applicant journalists were represented by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.

Employees of Index, 24.hu, HVG and Népszabadság were banned from the Parliament in 2016 because of previously violating the order of the Speaker, which excessively narrowed down the area in which filming was permitted in the Parliament. The HCLU argued that the order itself violates freedom of the press: it serves no reason whatsoever to limit the watchdog function of the press. What is more, no remedies were provided to the journalists to contest the decision suspending their right to entry, protecting them from arbitrary decisions.

The applicant journalists violated the rules of reporting for a reason: at that time a serious scandal was unfolding about the alleged illicit payments related to the Hungarian National Bank, of which they intended to interview MPs. The video recordings that resulted in their ban also show Speaker of the House, László Kövér passing by the parliamentary corridor without answering the questions addressed to him.

The European Court of Human rights made its decision on May 26. The Court emphasized that the Speaker’s order contained a restriction on entry in the event of a breach of the relevant provisions, without requiring any assessment of the potential impact of the sanction or the relevance of the journalistic activity giving reason for the restriction. Furthermore, it did not provide for the possibility for persons sanctioned to be involved in the relevant decision-making procedure. The procedure in the applicants’ case consisted of a letter addressed to the relevant editors‑in‑chief informing them of the suspension of the applicants’ accreditation. The Court pointed out that neither the Speaker’s order nor the impugned decision to ban the applicants from entering Parliament specified the period of restriction and the applicants’ subsequent requests for authorisation to enter Parliament were left unanswered. Lastly, the Speaker’s order did not offer any effective means of challenging the Speaker’s decision where the applicants could have presented their arguments. The Court concluded that the interference with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression was not “necessary in a democratic society”.

The judgement is particularly important because, since the 2016 incident, further restrictions were introduced to reporting from the Parliament. Parliamentarians need to be accountable when it comes to their official duties and should not be allowed to cherry pick the journalists and outlets they wish to talk to.

“Our research shows that those in power use various tools to obstruct the work of the press and thus escape accountability. We welcome this judgement, as it calls for systemic reform of the rules of reporting in the Parliament. The previous practice that allowed video reporting in the corridors and halls of the building shall be restored, and the arbitrary banning of journalists has to stop. We will work to enforce this.” - said Dalma Dojcsák, lawyer of the HCLU.

“This was the third case in two years in our practice in which journalists found justice in Strasbourg.” - said Tivadar Hüttl, attorney representing the journalists, referring to previous cases in which the Court ruled on the ban of a journalist from refugee camps and on liability for hyperlinking to third party content.

Applicants in the case were Ferenc Bakró-Nagy, Tamás Fábián, Norbert Fekete, Balázs Kaufmann, Klára Kovács and Iván Mándli. They were represented by attorney Tivadar Hüttl.

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