(New York, NY) – The detention of a Hungarian man for a Facebook post criticizing his government’s response to the coronavirus demonstrates the clear dangers of Hungary’s recently-adopted and widely condemned Coronavirus Protection Act. By granting officials the ability to criminally prosecute the spreading of “false statements” about the epidemic, the bill can be used as a tool by government actors to repress dissent, PEN America said today.

“The police’s actions in this case exemplify the dangers of Hungary’s Coronavirus Protection Act, as well as other emergency acts around the globe that attempt to criminalize ‘spreading falsehoods’ in relation to the coronavirus,” said Polina Sadovskaya, Eurasia project director for PEN America. “It is patently obvious how these bills can be weaponized as a tool to police dissent and punish criticism. Here, we have a man who was interrogated for sharing his personal opinion on the government’s response to the epidemic, in circumstances that strongly imply that he was in fact targeted for criticizing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Hungary should immediately reform the Coronavirus Protection Act to be consistent with international guarantees of freedom of expression, to ensure that this individual is the last Hungarian who has to endure such obvious intimidation tactics as a result of sharing his political opinion.”

On May 12, a man only identified in public reports as András was detained by police at his home near the town of Szerencs and taken into custody on suspicion of “fear mongering.” While police did not clarify the specific criminal provisions under which András was detained, public reporting indicates he was likely investigated in connection with the recently-enacted Coronavirus Protection Act. While detained, police reportedly interrogated András for a Facebook post he made on April 28, in which András argued that the Hungarian government’s proposed lifting of curfew restrictions was premature and could lead to mass infections. In his post, András also wrote critically of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, referring to him as “our dear dictator.”

András shared with Hungarian news outlet 444 that, during his interrogation, the police asked him questions such as “who exactly I was calling a dictator.” Although András was not charged and was released later that day, he reported telling the police that the detention “had achieved its result and would probably shut me up.” 

Adopted March 30, the Coronavirus Protection Act grants the broad new powers in response to the coronavirus. The act includes a provision stating that anyone who “utters or publishes before the public at large a statement they know to be false which is capable of hindering or frustrating the effectiveness of the containment effort is punishable by imprisonment for one to five years.” Journalists in Hungary have stated that the new law has already damaged their ability to access and report on public health information.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Orban, Hungary has experienced an increased climate of intolerance for dissent as well as wide-ranging new restrictions on freedom of expression. PEN America has previously expressed that actions such as the government’s 2018 expulsion of Central European University from the country, the passage of a rights-restrictive NGO Law in 2017, and the consolidation of control over independent media outlets in the country, all represent part of a “persistent effort to suppress freedom of expression in almost every way imaginable” from Orban and his allies.