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Hungary’s Disease Dictator

The free flow of information, together with public debates involving trusted experts, is crucial to managing the COVID-19 pandemic successfully. Hungary’s recent enabling act, which allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely, will have the opposite effect.

BUDAPEST – What critics justifiably call the “enabling act” that the Hungarian parliament passed on March 30 allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree for an unlimited period, supposedly to help the government fight the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the new law endangers the lives of many Hungarians by empowering the government to limit drastically information about the management of the virus. The deadly consequences of such an approach are well known from Wuhan, China, where the authorities initially suppressed information about the outbreak of a novel coronavirus.

Orbán’s enabling act neutralizes the few remaining channels of democratic accountability left in Hungary. It will bring about an extreme centralization of control over the flow of information about the pandemic and its management. And Orbán, in power since 2010, desperately needs to control the pandemic narrative, given his governments’ severe underinvestment in the country’s health-care system over the last decade.

The new law gives him that power. For example, it makes spreading “false” information about the virus punishable by up to five years in prison – a real sword hanging over the head of doctors and journalists alike. The justification contained in the relevant provision, together with the punishment, is nearly indistinguishable from a similar measure in Saudi Arabia. In effect, the enabling act minimizes the remaining room for Hungary’s independent media.

The Orbán government’s draconian measures in this regard are exceptional among European Union member states. Other EU countries generally are fighting fake news and misinformation about COVID-19 through soft means, such as promoting links to official information on the government’s or the World Health Organization’s websites, or working with fact-checkers.

That approach is working: the countries that have best managed the pandemic so far are those where information continues to flow freely and trusted medical experts play a prominent role in public debates. By contrast, US President Donald Trump initially dismissed the COVID-19 threat, while the United Kingdom’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, treated it as a joke before becoming infected and ending up in intensive care. Both countries are now suffering from COVID-19 outbreaks more severe than China’s.

In a highly uncertain situation, the uninhibited flow of information enables the collection of dispersed data, comparison of the effects of different strategies for managing the crisis, and greater government accountability. It is also crucial for combating misinformation, rumors, and fake news, whether these come from political leaders or citizens. The accountability that a free media brings has forced even the most self-serving and narcissistic leaders, like Trump, to abandon denial and take a more realistic approach to fighting the pandemic.

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Moreover, during a public-health crisis, the free flow of information helps governments and citizens to synchronize their actions. The more that citizens trust that governmental sources of information are subject to independent scrutiny, the more likely they will be to obey official instructions and help to manage the crisis effectively.

The South Korean government, for example, has so far managed to control the spread of COVID-19 without implementing a strict physical lockdown – in part because the authorities have collected and published extensive information about infected citizens, including their ages, movements, and districts of residence. This was possible because the public trusted the government to be able to design policies to handle the pandemic.

Truthful information entering from outside could save lives in authoritarian countries. Following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Soviet Union, news broadcasts by Radio Free Europe helped inform ordinary Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians of the scale of the disaster. Despite all the levers of state control, public pressure forced the Soviet authorities to open up about the crisis, and to accept Western help in fighting it. This time, however, the information required for public control over the crisis is dispersed within the country. 

During the first days of the pandemic, Orbán, like Trump, dismissed the threat, blaming the spread of the coronavirus (as with all other problems) on foreigners. But reports of Hungarian parents’ uncoordinated efforts to bar their children from going to school subsequently convinced the government to take the pandemic more seriously.

Moreover, as Hungary’s political opposition – and, more importantly, doctors and other health-care workers – began to speak out, older members of Orbán’s Fidesz party became fearful and put pressure on the government to act. But, by giving Orbán the power to rule by decree, the enabling act has rendered ineffective the country’s remaining key mechanisms of political accountability.

Orbán is not alone in seeing the pandemic as an opportunity to invoke emergency powers and seize near-dictatorial authority. But the enabling act represents merely his latest step along the autocratic path he embarked on a decade ago. Intoxicated by the vast powers he had already accumulated, Orbán decided to face the pandemic with the help of a law that supposedly will “guarantee the security of life and health and the personal and material security of citizens and businesses.”

The new legislation will do nothing of the sort, which is one reason why the EU must urgently implement a standardized system for member states to report on the pandemic, along with initiatives to support a free press. Such measures can save lives.

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