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Parliament to vote on extending state of emergency

Hungaryʼs government submitted a bill to Parliament late Friday that would extend a state of emergency declared on March 11 to enact measures containing the spread of the coronavirus, according to a report by state news wire MTI. Opposition parties say that they are in favor of prolonging the state of emergency, but not indefinitely.

Hungaryʼs constitution allows the government to declare a state of emergency for a period of 15 days, but the approval of two-thirds of lawmakers is required for any extension.

MTI writes that the bill would allow the government to "suspend the application of some legislation, diverge from legal provisions and take other extraordinary measures by decree in the interest of ensuring the security of life, health, person, property and rights of citizens as well as the stability of the national economy".

The bill also aims to ensure the governmentʼs power to take further measures and keep existing ones in place if Parliament is unable to convene for reasons related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Any scheduled by-elections would be canceled, and the scheduling of new by-elections would be prohibited. The initiation of any local or national referendums would be banned.

The bill would establish stiff penalties for violations of quarantine and isolation, ranging from one to eight years in prison. Individuals who obstruct measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus could also be jailed for up to a year under provisions in the bill.

Furthermore, the bill would set prison terms of up to three years for anybody who disseminates "false facts" or "distorted facts" which "incite unrest", and terms up to five years if the dissemination impedes the effectiveness of measures to contain the coronavirus.

The government called on all parliamentary parties to support the bill in a statement issued by the Justice Ministry late Friday. The ministry noted that scheduling a vote on the bill requires a deviation from house rules which must be supported by four-fifths of MPs.

With the bill, the cabinet wants Parliament to affirm all measures the government has taken already to counter the pandemic and give it a mandate to take further measures, even if lawmakers are unable to convene as usual, the ministry said.

Opposition against infinite extension

Democratic Coalition (DK) MEP Csaba Molnár told MTI that his party would only support a 15-day extension, which could be prolonged again by the Parliament upon expiry. He argued that other methods of voting would need to be introduced if the Parliament becomes unable to convene in the future, adding that no EU member states have declared a state of emergency for an infinite time.

Socialist Party (MSZP) faction leader Bertalan Tóth wrote on Facebook that while his party is aware of the situationʼs seriousness, they will not support an indefinite extension, arguing that it would "expose Hungary and the Hungarian people to Viktor Orbánʼs eccentricity".

In an interview with Magyar Hang, Jobbik president Péter Jakab said that there is no question that the state of emergency should be extended, but there is  "no reason for an indefinite to extend Viktor Orbánʼs mandate indefinitely, as that would be called a monarchy".

According to a report by news site 444.hu, Politics Can Be Different (LMP) co-president Erzsébet Schmuck said that her party will not give a blank cheque to the government. She added that she hopes that the government will support the proposals of the opposition, especially regarding the length of the extension.

Dialogue for Hungary (Párbeszéd) co-president Tímea Szabó says that her party would agree to a 90-day extension with additional constitutional guarantees. She argues that an indefinite extension would give absolute power to Viktor Orbán and Fidesz.

Council of Europe Commissioner, NGOs express concerns

Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights wrote on Twitter today, "#COVID19 bill T/9790 in #Hungaryʼs Parliament would grant sweeping powers to the gov to rule by decree w/o a clear cut-off date & safeguards. Even in an emergency, it is necessary to observe the Constitution, ensure parliamentary & judicial scrutiny & right to information."

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Eötvös Károly Institute, and Amnesty International released a statement expressing concerns regarding the bill.

"A carte blanche mandate for the Hungarian government with no sunset clause is not the panacea to the emergency caused by the COVID-19 virus in Hungary. We need strong rule of law safeguards and proportional and necessary emergency measures, not unlimited government rule by decree that can last beyond the actual epidemic crisis," the statement reads.

Govʼt spokesman defends billʼs fake news provision

Zoltán Kovács, the international spokesman for the government, complained that some international media outlets are "grossly distorting" the facts about the bill tabled by the government in a post on his blog on Saturday.

He said the provisions in the bill penalizing people for the spread of false information that confuses and provokes unrest among the public had been "jumped on" by some media outlets and correspondents, producing the "sensational line" that "ʼHungarian journalists could end up spending several years in jailʼ".

"This proposed law is like the sanction against falsely shouting ʼFire!ʼ in a crowded movie theater. That’s the classic legal analogy for speech that is not protected because it is dangerous and false," Kovács said.

"That’s what the proposed Hungarian law is saying, creating sanction for reckless speech that could impair or thwart efforts to protect people from the spread of the virus. We’re in a state of emergency, by the way. Lives are at stake. This gross distortion of the facts is biased and irresponsible," he added.

Update:

The Parliament rejected a motion to move up the vote on the bill to Tuesday. The vote will likely take place next week.

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