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Government

In a surprisingly fast move, Parliament accepted an amendment to limit the scope of data accessible to the public just one day after it was proposed by two MPs of governing party Fidesz. According to the new law, all public information requests could be refused by public entities, however, János Áder, President of Hungary has sent it back to Parliament for reconsideration.

In an extraordinary process, the Hungarian Parliament adopted an amendment to Act CXII of 2011 on the Right of Informational Self-Determination and Freedom of Information just 24 hours after its proposal. The Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) is vital to the work of Hungarian journalists, as it obliges rather secretive government agencies to make certain information available to public.

The new law states that “abusive” data requests that would impede “data controllers’ operations for a significantly long time” will not to be fulfilled. Opposition parties and civilian groups protested, with some of the most prominent of the latter resigning in protest from the anti-corruption working group organized by the government itself.

“Transparency International Hungary (TI), K-Monitor watchdog for public funds, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASz) and atlatszo.hu investigative portal are convinced that the amendment of the law on freedom of information discredits all previous stances of the government to stop corruption. Therefore we have decided to quit the anti-corruption working group coordinated by the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration. We are still devoted to making Hungary a better society free of corruption, but we will not lend our reputation to the jiggery-pokery our government is doing in the anti-corruption arena,” TI said in a statement.

Despite the haste with which the law was passed, its application was delayed by President János Áder, who vetoed it. While some might feel relieved for at least a while, NGOs protest that Áder only exercised a political veto and didn’t find it contrary to fundamental rights or send it for review by the Constitutional Court. “Based on the government’s comments, we’re expecting that some ‘cosmetics’ will be applied and the law will then be passed without actually addressing our core concern that it violates a basic right,” Fanny Hídvégi, TASz’s head of data protection and freedom of information program told the Budapest Business Journal in an interview.

The new amendment comes in the wake of the distribution of tobacco sales licenses under the new state monopoly rules, which many have found suspicious. NGOs and news sites called for transparency about the tenders, arguing that the list of licensees proved that most winners have close ties with the governing party Fidesz.

But even if the plan was to cover up all the alleged nepotistic ties between new license owners and Fidesz, the Hungarian National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (NAIH) states that the need to make data regarding concession winners public could be easily defended.

“The authority must interpret the law in force in accordance with the broader possible realization of the freedom of information. Even if the returned bill was coming into force, which would have left too many possibilities for public bodies to discard data requests, the authority would still be in a position to make institutions performing public functions disclose the information required in certain cases. As the authority has already made clear in its response to watchdog K-Monitor regarding tobacco sales’ licenses, applications can clearly be known, based on the law on concessions as well,” Dr. Attila Péterfalvi, president of the NAIH wrote in a statement sent to BBJ.

The ball is now back on Parliament’s side of the net. But even if MPs vote in favor of the proposal again, civil rights NGOs still hope to build barriers in the its path to save what ex-ombudsman László Majtényi called the last basic right still untouched. Ombudsman Máté Szabó could still refer it to the Constitutional Court for review. And after all, NAIH might make public institutions disclose the information required one by one.

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