Hungary’s Orban, Serbia’s Vucic seize greater authority amid coronavirus lockdowns

In ex-communist Eastern Europe and elsewhere, populist leaders are introducing harsh measures including uncontrolled cellphone surveillance of their citizens and lengthy jail sentences for those who flout lockdown decrees.

The human rights chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said while she understands the need to act swiftly to protect populations from the COVID-19 pandemic, the newly declared states of emergency must include a time limit and parliamentary oversight.

“A state of emergency — wherever it is declared and for whatever reason — must be proportionate to its aim, and only remain in place for as long as absolutely necessary,” said the OSCE rights chief, Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir.

In times of national emergency, countries often take steps that rights activists see as curtailing civil liberties, such as increased surveillance, curfews and restrictions on travel or limiting freedom of expression.  

Amnesty International researcher Massimo Moratti said states of emergency are allowed under international human rights law, but warned that the restrictive measures should not become a “new normal.”

“Such states need to last only until the danger lasts,” he told The Associated Press.

Hungary’s rule by decree

In European Union-member Hungary, parliament on Monday passed a law giving Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government the right to rule by decree for as long as a state of emergency is in effect.

Hungary declared a state of emergency on March 11 due to the spread of coronavirus. At the time of this parliamentary session, 447 cases have been confirmed in the country, with 15 deaths.

The law, which goes into effect Tuesday, also sets prison terms of up to five years for those convicted of spreading false information about the pandemic and up to eight years for those interfering with efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus, like a curfew or quarantine.

Rights groups and officials say the law creates the possibility of an indefinite state of emergency and gives Orban and his government carte blanche to restrict human rights and crack down on freedom of the press. Media outlets critical of the government have found themselves shuttered or snapped up by business associates close to the Hungarian leader long before the pandemic.

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Governments around the world are making extraordinary moves to get COVID-19 under control — including the curtailing of individual freedoms. In most countries, people are willing to go along with these measures, as long as they’re temporary. But what about when leaders use the coronavirus to grab more power? Today, we’re joined by Anne Applebaum, a historian and staff writer at The Atlantic, who has concerns about the potential lasting consequences of some governments’ pandemic responses. 21:32

“Orban is dismantling democracy in front of our eyes,” said Tanja Fajon, a member of the European Parliament. “This is a shame for Europe, its fundamental values and democracy. [Orban] abused coronavirus as an excuse to kill democracy and media freedom.”

“This is not the way to address the very real crisis that has been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said David Vig, Amnesty International’s Hungary director.

Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga said criticism of Hungary’s bill were “political attacks based on the wrong interpretation or intentional distortion” of its contents.

Opposition lawmakers said they were willing to give the government the requested powers, but only if they were set for a certain period, with the possibility of extensions.

“The opposition is united on the issue of giving the government powers which are significantly more extensive than the authority in the Constitution,” said Tamas Harangozo, a lawmaker with the opposition Socialist Party.” The opposition’s request is that “the government accept that it can only do this within time limits.”

‘No checks and balances’

In Serbia, the president has warned residents that Belgrade’s graveyards won’t be big enough to bury the dead if people ignore his government’s lockdown orders.

Since declaring a nationwide state of emergency, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has suspended parliament, giving him widespread powers such as closing borders and introducing a 12-hour curfew. (Darko Vojinovic/The Associated Press)

Since President Aleksandar Vucic announced an open-ended state of emergency on March 15, parliament has been sidelined, borders shut, a 12-hour police-enforced curfew imposed and people over 65 banned from leaving their homes – some of Europe’s strictest measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Serbian leader, who makes dramatic daily appearances issuing new decrees, has assumed full power, prompting an outcry from opponents who say he has seized control of the state in an unconstitutional manner.

Rodoljub Sabic, a former state commissioner for personal data protection, said by proclaiming a state of emergency, Vucic has assumed “full supremacy” over decision-making during the crisis, although his constitutional role is only ceremonial.

“He issues orders which are automatically accepted by the government,” Sabic said. “No checks and balances.”

While nearly 800 coronavirus cases and 16 deaths have been recorded in Serbia, according to Johns Hopkins University, testing has been extremely limited and experts believe the figures greatly under-represent the real number of victims. 

Images of the transformation of a huge communist-era exhibition hall in Belgrade into a makeshift hospital for infected patients has triggered widespread public fear of the detention camp-looking facility that is filled with 3,000 metal beds.

Serbian army soldiers patrol in Belgrade’s main pedestrian street on March 26. President Vucic made no apologies for setting up a makeshift medical facility for coronavirus patients that resembles a detention centre. (Darko Vojinovic/The Associated Press)

The Serbian president said he was glad that people got scared, adding he would have chosen an even worse-looking spot if that would stop Serbs from flouting his stay-at-home orders.

“Someone has to spend 14 to 28 days there,” Vucic said. “If it’s not comfortable, I don’t care. We are fighting for people’s lives.”

Do Not Drown Belgrade, a group of civic activists, has launched an online petition against what they call Vucic’s abuse of power and curtailing of basic human rights. It says his frequent public appearances are creating panic in an already worried society.

“We do not need Vucic’s daily dramatization, but the truth: Concrete data and instructions from experts,” the petition says.