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Police interrogates alleged fake news spreaders

May 15th, 2020

After Hungarian police interrogated then released two individuals for their Facebook posts critical of the government this week, liberal analysts find their fears justified that the government’s new fake news law threatens the freedom of opinion.

Left-wing and liberal media outlets reported that the police took into custody and interrogated two Facebook commenters for spreading fake news. One questioned how the coronavirus shutdown could be eased right at the time when, according to the Prime Minister, the pandemic has just peaked. He also likened the Prime Minister to a dictator. The other interrogated individual, a member of the opposition Momentum party, wrote that the government had made available more than 1,000 hospital beds for potential Covid-19 patients, in the town where he lives. According to amendments to the Criminal Code contained in the government’s coronavirus law, individuals who spread false or misleading reports which might seriously undermine the fight against the pandemic may be sentenced to prison terms of up to five years (see BudaPost March 25). After the interrogation, the Prosecution Service found the charges unfounded in both cases. In a response to 444.hu, the Prosecution Service wrote that neither of the individuals spread fake facts that would have in any way set back the fight against the pandemic. In a press release, the police said that they had so far initiated more than 100 procedures for spreading dangerous fake news, and in six cases, the Prosecution Service had started an investigation. The police also declared that they would henceforth act in accordance with the interpretation expressed by the prosecutors.

On Index, Gergely Nyilas and Luca Pintér see the two cases as proof that fears over the government’s new fake news bill were justified (see BudaPost March 27). The liberal commentators agree with the Helsinki Committee in that the fake news bill and potential police actions create a ‘chilling effect’ and deter Hungarians from expressing critical views about the government. Meanwhile they mention that the prosecutor’s office found nothing criminal in either of the two cases on Wednesday morning.

444’s Gergő Plankó also thinks that the interrogation of the two individuals for their Facebook comments was the result of ‘overzealous local police officers’. Two incidents, the liberal commentator remarks, nonetheless prove that the government’s fake news law can be used by the authorities to threaten and silence critics of the government. In his comment, posted several hours before the police were overruled by the prosecutors, he wrote  that Hungary can no longer be considered a democratic country where no one is harassed by the authorities for their opinions.

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