Human rights have been violated in various ways thoughout the refugee crisis, but there is good news: in the case of the billboard modifications, free speech has prevailed.
The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) provided legal representation for four people who painted over billboards, which had been ordered by the government and have serious anti-immigrant messages in Hungarian like: "If you come to Hungary, don't take the jobs of Hungarians!"
The HCLU took on the representation of these people. According to our view, the modification of billboards do not fulfil the criteria of felony or misdemeanour. The police eventually accepted our arguments and removed charges in all four cases. As of now, two of our clients have not received their belongings, telephone and cash, and a ladder which had been seized by the police. We have filed a complaint in their cases. The rest of the cases have been closed.
Our argument was
(1) First of all we believe that such action is warranted and proportionate as a step against government communication. With the use of over 300 million Forints (approx. £700,000) public funds, the Hungarian government forces messages on us that are explicitly hostile towards refugees and immigrants. Since there is no legal possibility to contest the billboards, painting over and tearing up the posters are commensurate, if radical steps. This situation is very similar to a case in 2007, when Fidesz politicians tore down the barrier around the Parliament - erected with the intention to curb demonstrations – with their bare hands as a protest against restrictions to freedom of assembly. What is more, in 2007 the MPs would have had the opportunity to officially complain against the barrier, but they decided to tear it down instead. This action was not considered to be a misdemeanor at the time, and neither was the case of the billboard modifiers now.
(2) Our second argument was that painting over billboards does not pose danger to society. According to the definition of felony and misdemeanor, it is punishable if one commits an act prohibited by law, for instance an act of vandalism and this act is, at the same time, dangerous to society. The case would be completely different if the posters in question had not been used for government communication, but a commercial advertisement was damaged, or the government communication billboards contained messages that were compatible with human rights. In this case the poster modifiers made unreadable a message that is morally untenable, and not in the least goes against the constitutional values of the state. For this reason, although formally they vandalize, their action does not carry a harmful effect on society and therefore they are not punishable.
(3) Our third argument was that the people who painted over and tore down posters are expressing their political views. Political views are under pronounced constitutional protection within freedom of speech. Criminal prosecution and the abridgement of rights by punishment have to conform to the principles of proportionality and necessity and the principle of ultima ratio. Criminal charges for damage caused in the course of expressing political views would be disproportionate.
We hope that the rule of law will prevail in cases still in progress, that it will come to light that the obstruction of journalists’ work, their beating and incarceration, the humiliation of refugees and their unlawful expulsion are instances when Hungarian authorities violate the fundamental human rights of these people.
For now, we are happy with this result and fighting for the rest.