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Renewed smear campaigns against judges show lack of guarantees

Safeguards against abuses when it comes to the restriction of the freedom of expression of Hungarian judges are still missing. This is also evidenced by new, intense smear campaigns launched in 2022 against critical judges, with government politicians joining the propaganda media. In their submission to the Council of Europe, Amnesty International Hungary and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee argue that this goes against the judgment delivered by the European Court of Human Rights over six years ago in the Baka v. Hungary case.

In 2016, the European Court of Human Rights found in its judgment in the Baka v. Hungary case that the premature termination of the applicant’s mandate as the President of the Supreme Court through ad hominem legislative measures was prompted by the views and criticisms that he had publicly expressed in his professional capacity about legislative steps threatening judicial independence. This violated not only Mr. Baka’s right of access to a court and freedom of expression, but exerted a chilling effect also on other Hungarian judges. However, to date, the Hungarian government has failed to take any general measures to prevent similar rights violations as established in the Baka case. In March 2022, the lack of progress prompted the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (in its capacity of supervising the execution of European Court of Human Rights judgments) to adopt an interim resolution, but to no avail.

Instead, judges voicing professional criticism have been attacked once again: in 2022, new smear campaigns were launched against judge members of the National Judicial Council (NJC), amplifying the chilling effect on the freedom of expression of Hungarian judges once again.

The NJC is the Hungarian judiciary’s self-governing body which, in its current composition, is strongly committed to fulfilling its constitutional mandate of having meaningful oversight over the administration of courts and raising awareness of the steps undermining judicial independence. This led to severe conflicts between the NJC and two powerful administrative judicial leaders, the president of the National Office for the Judiciary (NOJ) and the president of the Kúria (Hungary’s apex court) – both of them political appointees, elected by the parliamentary majority and vested by law with practically uncontrolled administrative rights. By the second half of 2022, these conflicts heightened, and smear campaigns against judges in the NJC of formerly unseen intensity were started, aimed at putting pressure on and discrediting them.

In August, the NJC’s spokesperson voiced his concerns over government overreach aimed at swaying courts in an article by the Guardian, which drew severe attacks against him from the pro-government propaganda media. In the autumn, another massive smear campaign was launched against the spokesperson and another sitting judge, also a member of the NJC. The judges were attacked and their independence was questioned for accepting an invitation to meet the ambassador of the USA in their capacity as representatives of the NJC, to talk about the situation of judges and judicial independence in Hungary. The second smear campaign was launched in an anonymous blog post of the right-wing media, but then it was consciously boosted. More than 450 publications joined in to personally discredit the judges, and the captured media landscape allowed the pro-government propaganda to keep it as a topic for weeks. The smear campaign was further fed by representatives of Hungarian authorities, including high-ranking officials of the ruling majority, government politicians, and even the representatives of the judiciary: the NOJ President and the Kúria President.

Also in 2022, the president of the Kúria challenged before the Constitutional Court the new Code of Ethics for Judges adopted by the NJC, hindering the NJC’s efforts aimed at strengthening the freedom of expression of judges.

In addition to the lack of safeguards against abuse when it comes to restriction of judge’s freedom of expression, adequate safeguards against undue interference with respect to the removal of judges are also missing. Examples from 2022 in this regard include that due to his uncontrolled power to declare an application procedure unsuccessful, the NOJ President rejected the appointment of a candidate as regional court president who was supported by the majority of the judges’ plenary meeting. The NOJ President did so partly in response to harsh criticism expressed by the candidate with respect to the NOJ’s court administration measures in front of judicial peers.

In their communication submitted to the Committee of Ministers, Amnesty International Hungary and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee argue that these and further developments included in their communication show a dismissive approach by the Hungarian authorities as regards the judgment in the Baka v. Hungary case and subsequent Committee of Ministers decisions. No general measures have been taken to prevent similar rights violations as established in the Baka v. Hungary judgment, and in fact, the most recent attacks against the independence of the judiciary as outlined above show a common pattern with the Baka case. This involves not only passivity on behalf of the authorities but also their active participation in the breach of the independence of the judiciary. Therefore, Amnesty International Hungary and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee are of the view that the judgment in the Baka v. Hungary case remains not implemented, and recommend the Committee of Ministers to continue supervising the execution of the judgment.

The communication of the two civil society organisations, complete with annexes documenting the details and scope of the smear campaigns, is available here:
NGO communication to the Committee of Ministers concerning the execution of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in Baka v. Hungary case

 

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Hungarian Helsinki Committee