Hungary: Government May Restrict Access to Information

The Hungarian Parliament adopted a controversial amendment to its Freedom of Information Act on April 30, a move that will make civilian and journalistic access to information more difficult, reported. The amendment was passed less than 48 hours after its introduction.

The amendment severely limits citizens’ access to public information, as it limits the amount of data individuals may obtain. The amendment also requires that individuals justify requests for information related to court cases, public bodies, and public officials, all information that was previously in the public domain, according to Transparency International.

The amendment is allegedly meant to limit the number of “abusive” requests for information, but local organizations, including Transparency International Hungary, watchdog K-monitor, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and OCCRP partner have decried the sudden change. All four organizations quit the anti-corruption group formed by the Hungarian Ministry of Justice in protest.

The quartet also petitioned President Janos Ader to veto the amendment. While Ader vetoed the amendment, and said that it gave “public service entities excessive right to decide what qualifies as an ‘abusive demand’ of information, he did not send it to the Constitutional Court. Under Hungarian law, Parliament can revote on the issue, thus bypassing the veto and passing the law unchanged.

In a commentary on the amendment, criticized the change and highlighted the importance of continued transparency.

Every citizen has the right to be informed about the spending of public money. Transparency is pivotal in any democracy, and the amendment voted on in Parliament calls that into question. Passing an amendment reshaping the sphere of freedom of information in only two days is unacceptable, the investigative reporting center added. Even more conspicuous is the fact that the amendment was proposed when civil society organizations requested access to the bids in a tender for tobacco retail licenses, which reportedly went to government party loyalists. This law will allow public decision makers to get away with bias and allow corruption to go unpunished, Atlatszo said.

Atlatszo added that the new, government friendly understanding of freedom of information enables users of public funds, mainly government offices and municipalities, to keep the allocation of public funds secret. The law contradicts the fundamental ethical norms of a democracy and places measures included in the Hungarian government’s anti-graft action plan into doubt.

Transparency International Hungary, K-Monitor watchdog for public funds, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and investigative portal are convinced that the amendment of the law on freedom of information discredits all previous stances of the government to stop corruption. We are still devoted to make Hungary a better society free of corruption, but we will not lend our reputation to the mockery our government orchestrated in the anti-corruption arena, Atlatszo said.