Hungarian Helsinki Committee wins lawsuit against Government at Supreme Court
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The Kúria (Supreme Court of Hungary) upheld the Budapest Court of Appeal’s (Fővárosi Ítélőtábla) previous final judgment in all aspects: The Hungarian Government’s 2017 National Consultation Questionnaire contained false allegations and ruined the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s reputation. The ruling ordered the Prime Minister’s Office to pay two million HUF in damages. But more importantly, an apology has to be issued by the government not only through MTI, the National Press Service, but also on the landing page of kormany.hu, the government’s official website, visible for 30 days, as a just compensation for the previous lie reaching 8 million voters.
The National Consultation Questionnaire said: “George Soros also wants to ensure that migrants receive milder criminal sentences for the crimes they commit. George Soros is a major supporter of organizations helping immigrants and protecting immigrants committing illegal activities. Such is for example the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which argued in regards to illicit border violations that “applying serious legal consequences for unauthorized entry is a matter of concern”. Another Soros-organization, Amnesty International, repeatedly demanded the release of Ahmed H, who attacked Hungarian border police with stones and was therefore condemned. Amnesty would even make the Hungarian state pay compensation.
Do you support this point of the Soros Plan? □ Yes □ No”
On the 1st of October, 2017 the Hungarian Helsinki Committee filed a privacy lawsuit against the Prime Minister’s Office, the organizer of the “National Consultation”. Since then, the case was tried by three different courts. In May 2018 the Budapest Court of Appeal issued a final judgment, but the government filed appeal and initiated a review process by the Supreme Court. Today, the lawsuit was resolved in the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s favor, and the government is to offer compensation.
What was the subject of the lawsuit?
Two years ago the civil rights activists asked the Court to confirm that allegations in the “national consultation questionnaire” – distributed to every Hungarian household by the government – damaged the association’s reputation. Point 5 stated, among others, that the Helsinki Committee protects immigrants involved in illegal activities and thus supports illegality. In addition to acknowledging the infringement, the civil rights activists asked the government to express its apology in an official statement and pay damages.
The lawsuit and its final judgment
As an interim measure, the court prohibited the distribution of the consultation questionnaire’s 5th point already prior to the first judgment, but at this time the questionnaires had already been sent out. Only afterwards did the trial on the national consultation lawsuit’s merits begin.
The first- and second-instance judgments in February 2018 and May 2018 accepted the law enforcement association’s claims in all important respects. According to these, in the text providing explanation to the “national consultation questionnaire” 5th “question”, the terms referring to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee were not presented as the “government’s opinion”, but as facts, misrepresenting the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and its real activities. The court of second instance viewed the national consultation questionnaire as a political marketing tool (and not as means of communicating public affairs), and stated that the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office, as a government body, cannot claim rights protection regarding the freedom of expression, as this is intended to protect citizens from the government, and not the government from citizens.
The final judgment ordered the government to pay two million HUF in damages, and to publish an apology through the National Press Service of MTI and on the landing page of kormany.hu, the government’s official website, for 30 days. In addition, the ruling banned the government body – commonly referred to as a “propaganda ministry” – from further violations.
In front of the Supreme Court
Later the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office initiated an appeal against the Supreme Court’s final decision. In its ruling today the Court kept its previous judgment in all respects. It also announced that the government’s official website must display the apology for 30 days as a just compensation for the damage caused by delivering false and offensive government propaganda to every Hungarian household.
According to the Supreme Court, the national consultation questionnaire presented the Helsinki Committee’s work as a “deterrent example” people should take a stand against. It has also been assessed that the questionnaire was not a press product, nor was it part of a public debate, but merely an expression of the state’s opinion to the public. Referring to a counterargument by the Cabinet Office, the Supreme Court pointed out that while the defendant is indeed responsible for directing government communications, it must also respect privacy rights while fulfilling this function.
“We are satisfied with the judgment. It would have been better for everyone, of course, if the government hadn’t lied about us. As citizens, we are particularly pleased that the court did not impose a very high amount for damage compensations, as that would ultimately be paid by the taxpayers, but accepted our request to apply compensation techniques that affect the government particularly and not the citizens of the country. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee will use the two millions paid in damages for free legal assistance for those who have come into conflict with the illiberal regime and have had the courage to stand up for others or for themselves.”- said Gábor Győző, attorney-at-law for the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.