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Editorial: ‘Terror-threat’ law would create threat of abuse

The following is the editorial from the Budapest Business Journalʼs January 29 biweekly edition.

While there has been no credible evidence of any kind of terrorist activities in Hungary, the government says it needs the ability to call a special “terror-threat” state of emergency. Officials are ready to amend the constitution in the coming weeks in order to create this law. It should not be passed.

Under the proposal, if the government perceives a terrorist threat, it can essentially ignore a host of existing laws that protect the rights of businesses and individuals. The guidelines for determining that there is a threat, and for deciding how many of our rights can be put on hold, are much too vague. Even if this measure is undertaken with the best of intentions, the potential for abuse is massive.

Actions the government could take if a threat is announced include: issuing decrees that supersede existing laws; limiting ownership rights; requiring extraordinary payments to facilitate financing of the government; assuming control of the mass media; suspending postal and electronic communication; mobilizing the army for domestic law enforcement; imposing curfews; searching individuals and their homes; and cancelling the right to public assembly.

The draft of the law says that a “terror-threat” emergency could be called for as long as 60 days and could be extended by a two-thirds vote of “the present members of Parliament” according to a translation.

In the past, this government seems to have acted arbitrarily in imposing special sectoral taxes and in nationalizing private pension funds, even without being granted emergency powers. Under a “terror-threat” emergency, the government’s ability to require extraordinary payments and to limit ownership rights sounds like a license to appropriate property at will.

This government has also already made heavy-handed efforts to influence the press, both through policy controlling the public media and through political moves and special taxes aimed at the private media market. But this law appears to give authorities the right to assume total control of the media in the case of a “terror threat”. If the sitting government decided to announce a threat 60 days before a general election, they could silence any critical news reports and stir up the kind of fear that makes voters tend to favor the incumbents.

Another problem with the proposed law is the apparent leeway it would give the government for announcing a “terror-threat”. In November, Hungary’s secret service and counter-terrorism unit (TEK) mistakenly said that some collectors of World War II memorabilia were terrorists planning a bomb attack on Hungarian soil. In December, the Hungarian government claimed that the terrorists who had attacked Paris the month before were recruited from among asylum seekers in Budapest, although this later proved untrue. Mistaken claims happen, but if they are used to trigger a 60-day suspension of civil rights, will we even be able to find out that someone made a mistake?

Amending the constitution to allow this measure requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority, so that the ruling Fidesz party would need opposition support to make the proposal a law. Unfortunately, the far-right Jobbik party, which has shown a proclivity for whipping up fear against outsiders, has said it broadly supports the law.

Given the potential for abuse by even the best-intentioned leadership, this law should not be passed.