Europe's Hungary Problem Is Not Going Away

Analysis: European leaders accuse Hungary of violating E.U. laws and putting democratic principles at risk. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban made a special visit to the European Parliament last week. But his conciliatory tone doesn't mean he

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (Europa Pont)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (Europa Pont)
Florian Eder

BERLIN - Victor Orban didn't go to Strasbourg to justify himself.

The Hungarian prime minister didn't waste his time addressing the specific complaints of European Union officials that he is seeking to limit the independence of his country's central bank and judiciary. "The problems can be corrected simply and quickly," he declared in his speech last week before the European Parliament.

Indeed, Orban had already communicated in writing the details of his plan to the president of the E.U. Commission, with whom Orban hopes to meet within the next few weeks. Was he backing down?

Orban had already sketched out the tactics behind his European appearance in an interview. He was bowing to "power, not the arguments." The prime minister is still hoping he can apply his policies. After all, not a single one of the Commission's criticisms had to do with the new Hungarian Constitution, "just with some of the conditions of its implementation," Orban said.

At the plenary session in Strasbourg, he was seeking understanding, arguing that ill will only erupts when something big happens. And he made no bones about the fact that something big is exactly what he has in mind. "What is happening in my country is a process of transformation and renewal."

Orban invited himself

The Hungarian prime minister invited himself to the parliament. That in itself was a fairly crafty move on the part of the right-wing leader, because addressing a plenary is usually reserved for the incumbent president of the European Council. Otherwise, only heads of state and religious leaders, like U.S. President Barack Obama and the Pope, are invited.

Orban had the confidence to address a group where he couldn't really bank on a lot of support. Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, called for Hungary to be reprimanded with regard to individual laws. He also called for an investigation as to whether or not its government measures were in accord with the rights to freedom guaranteed by European treaties. This would involve a never-before-used procedure meant to be applied in the event of serious violation of basic European values, and could lead to suspension of Hungary's voting rights at the Council of Europe.

At the same time, members of parliament were flattered at Orban's presence as he played the European institutions to win support -- it added luster to their own roles. The president of the parliament, Martin Schulz, said he was "thankful" that Mr. Orban had asked to address the body. However, they would now be asking representatives of Hungarian civil society to appear, to get a fuller picture of the situation.

That's not to say the E.U. Commission fully bought into the Hungarian leader's approach. Even though Orban, in his letter to Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, said he wished to work together with the European Union, Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who is in charge of media, sent a letter of complaint to Hungary's justice minister.

In the letter, Kroes repeated her criticisms of Hungary's media laws. Respecting the freedom and diversity of the media "is not only about the technically correct application of E.U. and national law, but also -- and more importantly -- about implementing and promoting these fundamental principles in practice," she wrote. Kroes went on to say that the Commission intends to monitor the situation, particularly the issue of the renewal (or not) of the broadcasting license of Klub Radio, which has been critical of the government.

The letter made no mention of possible legal steps. But the previous day, the Commission began proceedings against Hungary because it sees three national laws as being incompatible with E.U. law. These concern the authority of the Hungarian government over the central bank and a weakening of the independence of data protection authorities and the judiciary.

If Hungary does not answer Brussel's questions satisfactorily within a month, it can count on a case being brought before the European Court of Justice, and potentially severe fines.

Fearing financial collapse

The confrontation between Hungary and the European Union stands in the way of the country receiving urgently needed financial help. In his address to the parliament, Orban said the friction was a result of the attempts made by his government to balance the budget. He said he had accomplished a great deal in the 18 months he has been in office. "We still have enormous financial difficulties but are doing everything to lower debt levels," he said.

If it can't get any new loans, Hungary is looking at financial collapse by the middle of this year. That's a scenario both Orban and the European Union want to avoid. A collapse would no doubt cause severe problems for E.U. member country Austria and its banks, which have close financial ties with Hungary.

Foreign banks have been cutting back in Hungary. Many, like Austria's Erste Group and Raiffeisen, had to make write-offs due to the dramatic fall of the value of the Hungarian currency, the forint. German bank BayernLB went into the red in 2011 because of the performance of its Hungarian subsidiary.

Europe has a further worry regarding Hungary: that extremist politics in the country will grow stronger. According to an Ipsos poll, the popularity of Jobbik, the anti-Europe opposition party, is on the rise. The European Union has to be "very careful about the way it communicates things while remaining absolutely clear on the issues," said Commission President Barroso. "This should not be a debate against Hungary, but for Hungary."

Still, Orban did get some support: Polish opposition leader Jaroslav Kaczynski declared that the European Union should stay out of matters that don't concern it, and that he had given E.U. parliamentarians from his conservative right-wing PiS party instructions to oppose the "restrictions on Hungary's sovereignty."

In 2011, Kaczynski vowed that should his party come to power he would create a "second Hungary."

Read the original article in German

Photo - Europa Pont

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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