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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.

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