Hungary’s roll-back on social progress

According to the 2020 Social Progress Index, Hungary is just one of the three countries in the world that have declined in social progress over the past decade and is the third worst-performing EU member state, ranking slightly better than Bulgaria and Romania. The Index ranks Hungary on the 40th place, with an overall score of 81.02 points, falling behind less wealthy countries like Croatia, Uruguay or Costa Rica. While in specific components it scores 97.10 points in Nutrition and Basic Medical Care and 97.22 points in Water and Sanitation, since 2011 Hungary has performed poorly in Personal Rights (82.49) and Inclusiveness (52.15).

Two of the areas of major deterioration since 2011 are political rights (-22.50) and freedom of expression (-21) in which Hungary ranks 91st and 101st respectively. In 2019, Freedom House downgraded Hungary from “free” to “partly free” after “five consecutive years of decline”, making it the first and only EU member state that has ever been classified as “partly free” and which, therefore, fails to fulfil its commitments of upholding freedom and democracy and protecting human rights, the rule of law and equality. The ruling party, Alliance of Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Union (Fidesz), which came to power in 2010, has been criticized for conducting legal and constitutional changes that obstruct the functioning of universities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and media outlets. In 2017, the Hungarian government introduced a new act amending the Higher Education Law of 2011, which set new requirements for foreign higher education institutions. These amendments have been interpreted in Brussels as an attempt of the government to regulate the activities of foreign institutions operating in Hungary and consequently as a violation of the right of academic freedom. After the changes in the law, the top independent university in Hungary – the Central European University (CEU) – a US-accredited institution founded by the philanthropist George Soros – was forced to move its facilities out of the country. As a response to the developments mentioned above, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled on October 6th that the amendments introduced by Hungary in the legislation were “incompatible with the EU law” and therefore represented a violation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (“the Charter”). Failing to amend the legislation could lead to the imposition of fines against the Hungarian government.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

Media censorship is another indicator in which Hungary has deteriorated since 2011, ranking 111th in the world it is the second worst performing EU member state. In 2010 Viktor Orban’s government introduced a controversial law under which print and online media and broadcasters can be subject to fines of up to $1 million if they fail to provide a “balanced coverage” of any public issue. A Media Council, which regulates the media and whose members are nominated by the ruling party, was set to decide whether publications are responsible for breaking the rules. In 2015 leading news website Origo, known for criticizing the government, was sold to investors allied with the ruling party, and in 2018 several independent outlets were closed mainly due to the loss of state advertising revenue. Furthermore, the functioning of independent media and access to information is seriously challenged since the press departments of public institutions refuse to reply to questions of government-critical media outlets and government politicians fail to give interviews to independent journalists, who are occasionally banned from events. As a result of the imposed restrictions, a significant majority of national, regional and local media outlets, 78% according to some estimations, are increasingly pro-government. The new emergency law adopted amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which gives the executive the power to decide whether a report is true or false and allows the government to punish the publication of news it deems “fake” with a five-year prison sentence, is expected to suppress press freedom in Hungary further.

Demonstrations against media censorship
Source: Reporting Democracy

The Index provides striking results about the lived experiences of the Hungarian people as the country continues to deteriorate in indicators of political rights, freedom of expression and freedom of the press, as well as in access to quality education, access to justice and equality of political power. Through the Social Progress Index, we can guide civil society, business and political figures to prioritize their efforts in making better public policy and investment choices in order to arrest the decline.

By Sophiko Kurasbediani

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