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September report on watchdogs from Hungary

Crticizm of the Fifth Amandment of the Fundamental Law

In every 125 days, the Parliament amends the Fundamental Law which shall be the fundation of a stable legal order. However, the flood of the amendments makes it clear that the governing party sees the constitution as a tool of daily political interest. According to Eotvos Karoly Institutie, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and HCLU, this practice violatetes the rule of law, a principle enshrined in the Preambule of the Chart of Fundamental Rights. The recent amendment was aimed to react to decisions of the Constitutional Court and to foreign criticism.

Firstly, the passage prohibiting political advertisments in private radio or televison channels was abolished. The Constitutional Court ruled in late June that the prohibition violated the freedom of expression (Articel 11 of the Chart) and the freedom of elections. However, according to the current changes, the private channels cannot ask any sort of payment for the advertisments, but they face a simple choice: either they grant 600 minutes to each and every party for free or they do not leave space in their program schedule for political advertisments at all. It is not difficult to see that the media organs are not interested in provising free services for political parties, hence the amendment still falls far from the expectations laid down by the Constitutional Court.

Secondly, the Fundamental Law now draws a clear line between churches recognized by the state and religious communities. Entities within the latter category do not enjoy the same priviliges (tax favours, access to state funds) as churches do. Even if such a distinction is regulated on constitutional level, this does not mean that the violations caused by the re-regulation of churches suddenly becomes democratic. It worth recalling that the Church Law – adopted early summer 2012 – deprived existing religious communities from their settled rights and legal status as a church. Moreover, as a result of the failures of the legislative procedure, churches had only one day to prepare for the application of the much more restrictive and much less clearer provisions of the new law; by the definition of the concept of „religion”, it does not ensure the state’s duty of fairness and impartiality regarding the plurality of ideas and beliefs; and finally it does not ensure the principle of the separation of church and state, since the recognition procedure is dominated by political parties’ interests. Due to these questionable rules still in force, the freedom of conscience and religion (Article 10 in the Chart of Fundamental Rights) is still diminished.

The criticism of the Fifth Amandement expressed by the NGOs was sent to several international organizations in order to provide independent expertise for the fact finding committees. The three NGOs published constitutional analyisis on a regular basis in order to counterbalance the biased point of view of the administration and political parties. The analyses of the NGOs were called on by the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission and organs by the EU.

Police remains passive while football hooligans attack on Roma schoolchildren.

A bus load of football fans stopped outside the local school in Konyar, which has a large majority of Roma pupils. According to an official statement from the police, the football fans had stopped outside the village school, got off the bus, and were singing and smoking. After arriving on the scene, the police checked the IDs of 26 persons, and then the bus left the village, and no criminal or administrative offence happened. However, reports from eye witnesses and from the media and NGO field activists, the group got off the bus and threatened the Romani school children by shouting racist, anti-Roma expressions. They made gestures threatening to cut the children’s throats. Some members of the group also urinated in front of the school building. The school children and the teachers all witnessed these threatening events until the teachers ordered the children to go inside the school. Additionally, the school has previously been involved in a racist scandal. Earlier this year, a teacher at the school was dismissed after making racist comments about Roma on video. He said that Roma children are primitives, dirty and smelly who only understand the physical punishment and that they should have their spines broken. The teacher was fired from the school after the incident. The NGOs are concerned that the group may have targeted the school, which is not in an obvious location for a rest stop on this route. The fact that the former teacher was also on the bus suggests that the school was deliberately targeted.

CCTC records contradict the police statements. On the recording it is clearly visible that the bus passengers held a large banner with a symbol that is linked with the Hungarian far right/facist parties. Also, one of the passengers is waving towards the children in the schoolyard. The recording clearly shows the teacher leading the children from the schoolyard into the school about half a minute after the group of football fans has lined up.

Six human rights NGOs calling on Hungarian authorities to fully investigate the incident sicne there is a reasonable suspicion that the football fans committed the criminal offence of “violence against a member of a community”, a criminal offence aiming the protection of minorities. This provision is the cornerstone of the prohibition of discrimination and of the equal protection of rights, as provided by article 21 of the Chart of Fundamental Rights. It is inapprehensible that the police have made public announcements full of unproven statements, instead of clarifying the questions by adequately investigating. Without a proper investigation it cannot be determined what happened and whether there was a crime or not.

The NGO coalition has sent the open letter to the Minister of Interior, the National Police Chief and the Head of the Hajdú-Bihar County Police, calling for full and proper investigation of the incident. The letter was signed by: Amnesty International Hungary; Chance For Children Foundation; European Roma Rights CenterHáttér Support Society; Hungarian Civil Liberties Union; Legal Defence Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities. In a country, where equal protection to minorities in not an automatism on behalf of the authorities, it is the task of the NGO sector to step up and call for the protection of marginalized communities in form of public pressure.

Anti-corruption watchdog leader evaluates the government’s anticorruption record

The head of K-Monitor, an independent non-governmental civil organization that keeps Hungarian and international corruption-related cases at issue, published a summary in which he evaluates the performance of the current right-wing/conservative government in combatting corruption. The article was published on a dedicated United Nations website. The article criticizes the government, and emphasizes the weak performance in this area despite the historical mandate the right-wing Fidesz government received from the Hungarian electorate in the 2010 elections. The supermajority was partly a result of the corruption related scandals of the Socialist administration, hence the mandate should have been interpreted as a protest against corruption. In its campaign, Fidesz pledged, among other goals, to make politicians accountable, restore trust in the law and eliminate corruption. Despite the presence of a two-thirds majority in Parliament, the measures taken during the first three years of the current political cycle of Fidesz’s leadership have not brought about positive changes to the system.

The core problems remained the same: the lack of proper and accountable regulation on the financing of parties and their campaigns; weaknesses in regulations for public procurement; anomalies in the election system; concerns about rules on conflict of interest; and the corrupt nature of the municipality system – says the article. Tailor-made law-making, allowing certain regulation to openly or less openly cater to the interests of a person, company or business group. Investment opportunities and overpriced contracts are frequently granted to companies or businesses with close ties to government. Moreover, democratic and public control has been weakened, endangering the battle against corruption. The most recent example is the amendment of the Freedom of Information Act. (Access to information is part of the Chart of Fundamental Rights, Article 11.) Only a week after Hungary presented its action plan in London to the Open Government Partnership (which promotes international tools on good governance and human rights), committing to enhance openness at government and public institutions, Parliament members of the Fidesz party introduced the amendment to water down existing legislation. Among other participants of the Partnership, K-Monitor quitted the government consultations.

Expert analyis on highly debated public affairs is an important task of civil organizations who – on one hand, have to communicate with public administration on national and international level; on the other hand, NGOs have to translate their expertism to everyday language in order to communicate their message with the laic public.

Law enforcement needs be checked constantly

The police used unreasonable coercive measures at a festival in Szombathely, a western Hungarian city. The officers supervising the event suddenly called on the drummers at the Festival to stop immediately because they were not authorized to play as no fee had been paid. People started to take it seriously when out of no-where; two dozen policemen along with security guards appeared and started to push into the crowd. Bystanders were handcuffed and arrested after they were violently beaten with truncheons because they tried to help a girl who was dragged on the ground by the police. It is not clear what events occurred prior to the police action; whether individuals at the Festival acted in a manner which warranted the use of force. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, an NGO active in monitoring law enforcement agencies, pointed out in its public statement that before the use of coercion, the police has to identify itself and communicate the aims and purposes of the measures; request an end to any offensive action; adopt proportionate and less restrictive measures (for instance identity checks instead of handcuffing); give proper and effective warning that stricter measures will be adopted if the alleged offence is not ceased. However, none of these prescribed measures were carried out, hence the use of force was illegal. According to the Rules of Conduct of the police, following every coercive measure carried out by the police, the Chief of Police is bound to investigate the legality of that action. In this case, this investigation can only be carried out effectively if it takes into account the statements made by the victims and external witnesses, in addition to the police reports. The abuse of power by the law-enforcement violates the right to liberty and security of the citizens of the European Union as provided by Article 6 of the Chart. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee communicates on a regular basis the right of the citizens vis-á-vis the police measures. Such scandelous incidents provide an oppurtunity for the civil organization to educate the public on their rights through commenting on the clearly unlawful police actions.

Widescale fundraising to promote transparency and to combat bribery

Bribe.Hungarian investigative journalism news site and anti-corruption watchdog, Atlatszo.hu is raising $4500 in order to launch Hungary’s first bribe-tracker website fizettem.hu (“I paid it”). As the appeal to the public points out, bribery is a common phenomenon in Central and Eastern Europe. Hungarians pay bribes to doctors, policemen, officials, or even to driving test examiners, the list is endless. Hungary even made it to the BBC’s “corruption dictionary” with the infamous Nokia box ‒ 15 million Hungarian forints ($65,000) worth of bribe fits in the cell phone’s box. According to the Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, 48% of the Hungarian respondents strongly agree that ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption. Fizettem.hu will be the localized version of ipaidabribe.com. It will let its users publish anonymous stories of bribes paid. Atlatszo.hu will use computer assisted anonymization before publishing the stories that feature the category, place and the amount of the bribe paid. The portal will also collect stories of refused bribes. The aim of the project is to make the Hungarian society more transparent and start a public debate on ordinary corruption that affects our everyday lives. Atlatszo.hu asks its readers to donate $17 (or 13 EUR) to the project.

Fundraising is a difficult and constant task of civil organizations. To ask financial help for a popular cause such as combating bribery is a good way to involve people into NGO projects and to build a circle of contributors.

Activists aquitted

On March 27th, 2012, the public company contracted for cleaning and park maintenance by the city hall of the 9th district of Budapest, destroyed the huts of four homeless people in a forest without respecting any official procedures required. Even though the homeless people had built their shacks illegally, this does not mean that their property can be destroyed or taken away without any written notice and time for preparation. Activists of the City for All – a group of homeless people and their non-homeless allies campaign together for equal rights (including that of housing) for all citizens – had tried to reason with the representative of the company prior to the eviction. Despite the protestation and the cricism of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, condemning a very similar action of a different district of Budapest, the company, however, went ahead with what they called the cleaning of the forests: collecting and removing garbage, including the huts and personal belongings of the people living there. Two activists tried to prevent the destruction of the huts, asking for help from the 8 policemen present, reminding them of the legal constraints binding the public company. The police, however, handcuffed and arrested the two activists, instead, and fined them for about 100 euros (more than the monthly amount of the regular social benefit) for “disobeying legal action”. On September 10 and 12, the Budapest district court acquitted two housing rights activists. Furthermore, the investigation led by the Office of the Hungarian Commissioner for Fundamental Rights. The report concluded that no local authority can neglect the usual procedures of eviction (written notices well in advance, providing information about alternatives, etc.) nor fail to provide real, lasting housing options to the people thus evicted.

Living on the edge: being homeless is a crime?

Photo of the protesters.The Parliament will vote on the proposed legislation drafted and presented by the Ministry of Interior affairs ont he criminalization of homelessness. According to the proposal, the local governments will be empowered to to adopt decrees which make it a criminal offense to reside habitually in public spaces or to store belongings there. Under the proposal, recidivists risk imprisonment for up to 60 days or a fine of up to 150 thousand HUF (approx. 700 USD). The new proposal is the freshest episode in a long waging legal war between the government on one side, and NGOs, Constitutional Cort and the Ombudsman ont he other side. The Hungarian government has taken a series of oppressive actions against homeless people over the past three years. These ordinances, laws and local actions seriously violate the dignity of thousands of citizens living in poverty. While hardly taking any positive and sustainable measures to ensure the social rights of Hungary’s most vulnerable citizens, the government’s approach to poverty and homelessness has been predominantly punitive.

In November 2012, the Constitutional Court struck down a law that criminalized street homelessness, arguing that the state should address homelessness as a social and not a criminal issue. In response, the governing party decided to change the Constitution itself, enabling local governments to punish “habitual residence in public spaces” and define further “antisocial” behaviors.

An alliance of nine NGOs sent a public letter to the Ministry of Interior Affairs asserting the withdrawal of the proposal. It is worth noting that in spring 2013, key international organizations criticizde the articles of the Constitution permitting the penalization of homelessness, while the Venice Convention and the European Parliament strongly disapprove of the Hungarian government’s actions in their reports.

The problem of the criminalization of homelessness is an important human rights issue these days across Europe. The Parliament of the European Union recently held a hearing where French member of the EP criticized countries for penelizing homeless people carrying our life-sustaining activities in public because there nowhere to go.

Corruption risks in higher education

Transparency International Hungary launches a new series of debates on a sectoral corruption. At the first roundtable discussion, the expert participants will discuss the results of the TI’s the 2013 Global Corruption Report on Education. Representatives of the administration, civil societies and interest groups will reflect on the corruption problems are there in education. The “Global Corruption Report: Education” presents the experience gathered from all over the world, and shows the corruption dilemmas one can encounter in the education system. Besides the global report we launch the “Corruption in the Hungarian higher education” research conducted by Kutatópont and TI Hungary. Such events may initiate real public discussion, and ulitmately contribute to solve a serious problem of the society.

Logo funduszy szwajcarskich, Ecorys oraz Euroregion Bałtyk.       

This text is a result of a research prepared within the project “Powerful Watchdogs” supported by a grant from Switzerland through the Swiss Contribution to the enlarged European Union. The report aims to show the up-to-date information regarding activity of watchdog organizations in a given country. The author refers to the classification on watchdog functions, to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the international concepts of the transparent governance.

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