Changes in Hungary Seen Undercutting FOI Rights

29 April 2011

Hungary has replaced the independent Data Protection and Freedom of Information Commissioner with an administrative authority, seriously weakening the right to access information, according to Human rights and media freedom groups.

The changes result the new Hungarian constitution, recently signed by Hungary’s president Pál Schmitt.

 “There is still a lack of clarity about the proposed new data protection and access to information authority as its powers will have to be established under a new fundamental act of parliament (Article VI paragraph 3) and to date, no one has seen any draft text of that law,” according to a statement by the South East European Network for Professionalism in Media.

The statement continues:

 It is unlikely that the body will have the same powers or independence as the Commissioner enjoyed to date. Other serious changes to the Constitution include limiting the independence of the judiciary and removing the right of citizens to turn to the Constitutional Court with individual appeals.

“The adoption of the Hungarian constitution intolerably violates civil rights of the Hungarian people. The new constitution severely damages freedom of expression in a country that was once a European leader in the public’s right to know,” said Andreas Bock, editor at the media organisation n-ost.

“The Hungarian Data Protection and Information Officer has been key to promoting and protecting the right in Hungary and has been a model for the region,” added Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info Europe. “This move is a way to bring an immediate end to the independence of the existing information commissioner and replace him with a more subservient authority.”

“The new agency will be less independent, consequently it won’t be able to confront the administration in major freedom of information cases, which will result in a less transparent and more corrupt state,” added Tivadar Hüttl, Freedom of Information Program Director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.

The attack on the right to information is the latest in a series of regressive moves including the much-criticised reform of the media law and proposals to disburse the historical secret services archives.

Access Info Europe, n-ost Network for Reporting on Eastern Europe, the South East Network for Professionalization of the Media, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ), raised these concerns about the new Constitution one week after launching in Budapest  the “Legal Leaks” toolkit for investigative journalists on how to use the right of access to information.

Hungary, in 1992, was the first country in central and Eastern Europe to adopt an access law.

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