Help, inform, protect: HCLU’s response to the human rights crisis following the COVID19 pandemic

We at the HCLU take pride in being adaptive.

The COVID19 pandemic turned from an intriguing news story into a crisis overtaking our lives in a matter of days. We at the HCLU take pride in being adaptive. We have battled through many crisis situations together during the past 10 years because of the Hungarian government turning more and more authoritarian. This have endangered not only the principles and freedoms we deeply care about but also the existence of our organization. The pandemic is different however not only in the obvious ways, but also on a personal level as we were not able to meet in person and help each other through the crisis. The HCLU has redirected its entire operations to remote working in two days amidst our colleagues trying to adapt personally as well. While this was a challenging situation in itself, we also have to step up our efforts to fulfill our mission to keep citizens informed about the rights as well as hold governments accountable for violating the rule of law and fundamental freedoms.

The Hungarian government used the crisis to further tighten its grip on power while leaving citizens alone in figuring out how to adapt to the ever-changing regulations. The HCLU together with its partners analyzed the legislative changes regarding the special legal order introduced in March (Authorisation Act). Furthermore, we found that during the special legal order, the government had adopted a series of decrees which had nothing to do with protection measures or that disproportionately restricted fundamental rights. When analysing the bills supposed to terminate the state of danger we have concluded that the promise to revoke the Authorisation Act is nothing but an optical illusion: the legislative changes enacted would allow the government to again rule by decree for an indefinite period of time, this time without even the minimal constitutional safeguards. During this period the HCLU stepped up its free legal counselling service as well responded to the citizens’ need for information and protected civil liberties.

Group photo of the remote working staff.

HCLU helps

The national “state of danger” which was declared by the government on March 11, allowed the government to adopt regulations which may as well override Acts of the Parliament. While this can be seen as a sufficiently flexible tool to adapt the quickly changing situation caused by the virus, it brought uncertainty to the citizens.

The enormous amont of requests to our legal counselling service evidences the raising level of uncertainty. The HCLU concentrated its efforts to answer the requests: more than 2500 inquiries were solved in the four months from March to June. In a typical year, the entire organization receives this many inquires during 12 months. Besides the individual requests, we also published FAQs, know-your-rights materials on numerous topics in order assist citizens in navigating during the crisis. Due to the frequent changes, FAQs had to be constantly monitored and revised. We are proud to say that our dedicated FAQ site with up-to-date, detailed and comprehensive information is still running, this site alone had 370 000 visitors since the start of the crisis.

Most important violations

  • Inquiries about the practice of lockdown regulations: As the regulations kept changing week by week, the rules in force and out of force mixed not only in citizens’ heads but also in official communication. Regulations were often poorly constructed leading to confusion and uncertainty. Some legislative pieces went into great details but failed to answer basic questions. For example, a declaration defined that it is allowed to obtain manicure service during the lockdown but it was uncertain whether the police would fine one who visits their grandparents.
  • Labour law questions: The questions concerned remote working as well as surprisingly basic questions of an employment contract. We concluded that citizens have a very low understanding of their rights thus our legal counselling service proved to be vital for them. Healthcare and social workers were in a unique but often uncertain legal position as they needed to continue their work amongst restrictions and sometimes poor work conditions lacking the most essential protective gears. The HCLU provided legal advice to healthcare workers who were obliged to provide medical care despite the lack of proper protective equipment; to those over 65 years who were not allowed to provide personal assistance at hospitals due to their age; and to those medical professionals who were prohibited from leaving the country during the crisis.
    As a response, the HCLU strives to deepen its relationship with labour unions, especially the ones working the the healthcare, the education and the social service system. Furthermore, we strive to develop strategic litigation cases concerning working conditions in order to enforce workers' rights in the public service sectors
  • Violation of the right to healthcare: In the midst of the pandemic the government ordered a general healthcare shutdown and also that 60% of hospital beds shall be made available for potential (but at the time non-existent) COVID patients. As a result of this patients occupying these beds were simply sent home, in some cases contrary to health indications and without support by social services. We have developed a sample petitions for citizens wishing to take their case forward to the authorities. We are working on building impact litagation cases as well.
Our SZABAD.info addressing the clearing of hospital beds. Márton Asbóth, Head of Privacy Program, HCLU.
  • Travel restrictions: Unclear and quickly changing rules made it difficult to know whether it was allowed to travel to and from Hungary; it was also unclear when one should go to quarantine and under which conditions is it possible to ask for an exemption. We have received the most inquiries on this topic.
  • Inconsistent enforcement: The police and other authorities sometimes followed rules and regulations very strictly but sometimes they were quite ignorant. For example, some were fined for not keeping the 1.5 m distance while others went to a football match sitting close to each other without any consequences.

HCLU informs

As the pandemic reached Hungary and our neighbours, the government started an active communication. However, since the start this communication did not meet the criteria for efficient and clear information needed by the public. As a human rights organisation we considered it our mission, not only to provide legal assistance, but also to process the stories behind the pandemic and provide a comprehensible narrative to our followers. Our aim was to sensitize the public to our narrative and aspects through developing different contents.

  • We launched our weekly explainer video series, the SZABAD.info. In the series we examined news stories that raised the most questions. For example, we discussed the hasty ministerial decree ordering to clear the hospital beds, travel restrictions as well the unlimited powers given to the government. The pilot episode of SZABAD.info had more than 280 000 views.
The filming of our first SZABAD.info video.
  • We launched our podcast as well in this period. The bi-weekly podcast varies two types of content: we either have a conversation with an expert on a timely topic or we share the stories of our clients. These podcasts have approximately 150 listeners in the first week after they are published. Our most successful episodes were a discussion with a political scientist about the emergency law, which allowed the Hungarian government to rule by decree without time limits; and a heartbreaking episode with one of our clients living with disabilities, who is held in a large institution without his consent and during the pandemic not even being able to receive visitors.
The advertisement of one of our podcasts
  • It is our mission to direct the spotlight to the situation of vulnerable people often not processed in the media. We created two short films covering such topics, one was about the water shortage in places of segregation and in poor areas, and the other about children who are excluded from digital education and about teachers trying to reach out to them. Both materials brought press releases, and after the films were published, we also organized a live Facebook conversation around the two topics, where you could ask questions from our experts.
  • We moved our planned offline events to the online sphere and reorganized them in order to cover topics related to the pandemic (e.g. fake news legislation detailed below), with additional live QA sessions with the participation of our experts.

HCLU protects

The Hungarian government used the pandemic to restrict civil liberties and have also further diminished free media space. On March 16, the Hungarian government suspended the right to assembly. A subsequent law has extended the government’s emergency powers indefinitely, deferred elections during that time and introduced a new provision that criminalizes “scaremongering”. Independent media outlets reported about further centralization and hurdles to accessing information as well as intensifying pressure on independent journalists.

  • The government response to the health crisis has been heavily criticized after 60% of hospital beds were ordered to be released in a week, effectively evicting current patients. In response to the decision, two independent MPs and an opposition party called for a driving demonstration around Clark Ádám Square on 20 April. Protesters drove their cars to the central roundabout after work hours and honked their horns. Despite the lack of initial response from police, after the organizers called for weekly driving protests, police began cracking down and giving out fines from 30,000 up to 750.000 HUF (about 100 - 2500 USD) to protesters. The reasoning behind the fines ranged from petty offences such as breaking traffic rules to violation of lockdown rules. The organizers decided to cancel the sixth protest after the overwhelming numbers of fines. The HCLU is representing two protesters challenging their fines and has created a guide for others who were fined for protesting.
Picture taken on one of the demonstrations.
  • The new scaremongering provisions were used at least three times by the police against social media users who had published their legitimate political opinions online. In one case, the police showed up at the house of a user at six AM, detaining him and later publishing footage of the procedure under the title “Fearmongerer was arrested”. While all three cases were closed eventually without charges being pressed, the huge media attention around the cases most definitely caused a chilling effect among social media users. The HCLU published a guide to users in Hungarian and English that informed them about responsible ways of using social media to avoid committing any illegal activities.
  • In 2019, the HCLU conducted an interview based research with 19 independent media organizations about the obstacles they face when exercising their public watchdog function. We decided to revisit the media outlets in April, 2020 to see how the pandemic and the subsequent actions of the Government affected their situation. Based on the interviews, we came to the following findings:
    • Public information on the coronavirus pandemic has been centralized and restricted. Restrictions are most detrimental to independent media that provide daily news. In general, journalists reported that it is extremely difficult to obtain information from any official sources other than the government sources or the official daily press conference. Two interviewees noted that the medium they represented was probably blacklisted because none of their questions have been answered during the daily press conferences, nor in writing afterwards.
    • Other sources of information have also been narrowed. Potential information providers are intimidated. Retaliation threatens those who leak information to the independent press. As one interviewee reported: “I was talking with an acquaintance who is a doctor, and at some point, he said: "Don't write this down because then I'm going to be fired and you're going to jail."
    • The amendment of the legal provisions of scaremongering as a criminal offence affects the majority of journalists. According to one of our interviewees: "We've been walking on eggshells since the ‘Muzzle Act’. As this is a blanket rule, it is completely uncertain what we would need to prove in court. Now it seems that it is not enough to have a credible source, we would have to provide all the evidence in court.”
    • Discrediting independent media has been intensified and become organized. There is a regular smear campaign carried out in the public service media against critical voices, in particular against the independent media outlets, which immediately sweeps through the propaganda media machine. On HírTV, there were several statements made by pro-government publicists calling for a "muzzle" for some representatives of the press, asking when the editor-in-chief of Index.hu "will be put away", and suggesting that "some of these scaremongers should be put in a police car and carried away, for everyone to see”.
    • These findings justified many of our previous concerns about the legal and institutional pressure on journalists, but in the meantime cleared the picture on the issues our organization needs to prioritize when it comes to press freedom. With the help of IFEX in the form of a grant, we are currently able to deepen our understanding and implement the most effective strategies into our strategic plan to alleviate some of the difficulties media organizations have been facing in the last months.

The COVID19 pandemic turned from an intriguing news story into a crisis overtaking our lives in a matter of days. We at the HCLU take pride in being adaptive. We have battled through many crisis situations together during the past 10 years because of the Hungarian government turning more and more authoritarian. This have endangered not only the principles and freedoms we deeply care about but also the existence of our organization. The pandemic is different however not only in the obvious ways, but also on a personal level as we were not able to meet in person and help each other through the crisis. The HCLU has redirected its entire operations to remote working in two days amidst our colleagues trying to adapt personally as well. While this was a challenging situation in itself, we also have to step up our efforts to fulfill our mission to keep citizens informed about the rights as well as hold governments accountable for violating the rule of law and fundamental freedoms.

The Hungarian government used the crisis to further tighten its grip on power while leaving citizens alone in figuring out how to adapt to the ever-changing regulations. The HCLU together with its partners analyzed the legislative changes regarding the special legal order introduced in March (Authorisation Act). Furthermore, we found that during the special legal order, the government had adopted a series of decrees which had nothing to do with protection measures or that disproportionately restricted fundamental rights. When analysing the bills supposed to terminate the state of danger we have concluded that the promise to revoke the Authorisation Act is nothing but an optical illusion: the legislative changes enacted would allow the government to again rule by decree for an indefinite period of time, this time without even the minimal constitutional safeguards. During this period the HCLU stepped up its free legal counselling service as well responded to the citizens’ need for information and protected civil liberties.

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