Protest in Hungary: limited, burdensome and risky

In the last few years, the possibilities for protesting on public issues in Hungary have changed significantly. A number of changes have taken place that have significantly damaged the freedom of expression, the right to strike and the freedom of assembly that are relevant to protest. It is harder for anyone who wants to protest with others, make demands and gather supportive citizens today than it was a few years ago.

What are the ways and possibilities of collective protest and expression of dissent in public affairs in Hungary? What changes have damaged the right to strike and the freedom of expression and freedom peaceful assembly over the last two years?

In 2022, the protests in Hungary changed significantly. First, the social groups protesting were more organised than in previous years. Second, protests with different aims and for different social groups used to be isolated from each other, but now there is more solidarity between the different groups and their protests are becoming more and more interlinked. And finally, the protesters have become much more persistent than before: their failures no longer discourage them from continuing as they did before.

But the Hungarian government doesn't like dissent and doesn't like to negotiate about anyone's demands, so it has made the various forms of protest much more limited, burdensome and risky.

Teachers: eliminated right to strike

First of all, the government practically eliminated the right to strike for teachers. At the beginning of 2022, a serious teachers' strike was organized. We all know that the essence of the strike is to force the government or the employer to negotiate with the protesters, partly on the demands of the strikers and partly on the framework for the strike, for example, what are the minimum services that should be provided during the strike. However, the government refused to negotiate on either issue, instead setting out the minimum services in a government decree about a month before the planned strike was due to begin. In doing so, it deprived the teachers of the essence of their strike: the conditions that should essentially be agreed upon between the parties were codified without any consultation, thereby avoiding the need to negotiate and instead unilaterally deciding what the minimum services should be. On the other hand, it has set the level of minimum services at such a level that the strike is essentially invisible to society (in short, almost all classes in schools must be held.) The government has thus taken away the pressure power of the strike.

It should be noted that this government decree was issued abusing the powers granted by the special legal order. The content of the decree had nothing to do with the pandemic that justified the special legal order. This instrument was used for the sake of rush: to prevent a strike that was already being organised. The legislative process would have been slower, so the government needed a decree to amend the rules of the law. When the time allowed, the decree rules were later enacted into law.

Disproportionate sanctions for civil disobedience

Some of the protesting teachers found it pointless to go on strike in such circumstances, so many resorted to a more radical form of protest: civil disobedience. In essence, they did not hold a certain number of classes, accepting that they were in breach of their obligations. The government's response was not lacking: it made an example of some of the better-known and lesser-known participants in the protests. The most severe possible disciplinary sanction, the immediate termination of employment, was applied for some of the lessons not attended. Many other protesting teachers faced the same. This was clearly a disproportionate response to the offence of civil disobedience, but the government put the protesters under severe existential pressure and they were now gambling with their jobs.

Downgrading the debate partner

I include among the very serious government reactions to the protests the swift action taken against the Hungarian Medical Chamber. The Chamber wanted to consult the government on an important organisational issue, but the government was unwilling to do so. As soon as it became clear that the medical chamber was therefore planning another form of pressure, the government distorted certain facts, played up a fake outrage at the chamber's behaviour and then, in less than a week, significantly reduced the chamber's position. By abolishing compulsory membership of the Chamber for doctors, it has significantly eroded the Chamber's legitimacy. And parallelly, the power to self-regulate the medical profession and conduct ethics proceedings were curtailed. By downgrading an institution with strong legitimacy, the government has removed a previously unavoidable stakeholder from the scene.

In penalising graffiti, the courts may not take into account if it is a public expression of an opinion or not

Graffiti with statements on political topics, regardless of whether they are on walls or other property, should be subject to the same legal consideration as wall tagging, according to an (essentially normative) uniformity decision of the Curia. Whether it is done with washable paint or otherwise is, according to the Curia, indifferent. The judges cannot make any deviation from the decision when deciding on the criminal liability of the graffiti painter, the content, nature and purpose of the graffiti on the property must be irrelevant when examining the offence. The fact that the defendants were exercising their freedom of expression cannot, therefore, be taken into account, since writing public messages on the pavement with paint that the rain has obscured is a criminal offence, as is spray can painting on the walls of buildings with the mere intention of causing damage.

Crackdown on demonstrators

The legal conditions for exercising the right to freedom of assembly have not changed in the last year and a half, but it has become riskier to participate in demonstrations. Compared to previous years, the police have been more aggressive in dealing with demonstrators. Police have also used tear gas and batons in the absence of legal conditions (in violation of the proportionality requirement, or without any warning about the use of it) and have used very strong force against underage demonstrators (secondary school students). Demonstratively detaining demonstrators (including teenagers) for overnight stays, justified by the allegation that they were violent, although they were not prosecuted for a violent crime. However, other criminal proceedings are initiated against demonstrators for covering their faces which is forbidden and a punishable behaviour (even in cases of suffering from tear gas or of infectious respiratory diseases), or misdemeanour procedures against organisers of undeclared gatherings. It seems that demonstrators are being led to believe that it is risky to demonstrate because there is a high chance that the demonstrator will come into conflict with the police or face prosecution.