Press release - CommDH003(2012)

Hungary: Legislative changes threaten democracy and human rights

Strasbourg, 12/01/2012 - "Major legislative changes have been adopted in Hungary after minimal public consultation and without sufficient consideration of crucial human rights principles. Recent decisions affecting the independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression and freedom of religion raise serious concerns", said the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, publishing today a letter addressed to the Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs about the new Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, which deprives a great number of religious denominations of their church status.

The non-recognised religious communities are denied rights and privileges which they previously enjoyed in Hungary and now face severe legal and procedural obstacles when trying to regain church status. Though the letter received a reply from the Government, the Commissioner is still concerned. “The Parliament will in future decide on the recognition of an applicant denomination. Such a procedure, which tasks a political body to assess the legitimacy of religious beliefs, is not compatible with the State’s duty of neutrality and impartiality", says the Commissioner.

The letter follows previous concerns expressed by the Commissioner about the adoption of a set of laws, introduced by the Hungarian authorities between June and December 2010, affecting media freedom and pluralism. In an Opinion published in February 2011, Commissioner Hammarberg drew attention to the wide range of problematic provisions in Hungary’s media legislation, including content prescriptions; the imposition of sanctions on the media; the establishment of a politically unbalanced regulatory machinery with disproportionate powers and lack of full judicial supervision; threats to the independence of public-service broadcast media; and erosion of the protection of journalists’ sources. Despite amendments to the laws adopted in March 2011, the Commissioner notes with regret that these concerns remain.

The Commissioner is also deeply worried about decisions taken to limit the powers of the Constitutional Court and reduce the independence of the Ombudsmen offices. “Every democracy needs a system of checks and balances and institutions which provide effective control on executive powers.”

Furthermore, the Commissioner has noted steps taken in Hungary which might undermine the independence of the judiciary. As a consequence of the lowering of the retirement age for judges, more then 200 new judges will now have to be appointed. This measure has been accompanied by a change in the procedure for such appointments, which now rests on the decision of a single politically appointed individual. Moreover, the Commissioner considers it unfortunate that, as a consequence of the new law on the judiciary, the mandate of the President of the Supreme Court has been terminated before the end of the regular term. “The approach whereby judges are appointed by the President of the National Judicial Office, who is nominated by the government for nine years, gives rise to serious reservations. The judiciary must be protected from undue political interference.”

The Commissioner therefore calls upon the Hungarian authorities to take resolute measures to uphold the independence of the judiciary, as well as to fully respect the freedoms of expression and religion, which are among the pillars of a democratic society. As demonstrated by Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland in a letter published today, the Council of Europe is ready to continue providing expert advice on these matters.


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