FINALIST: A Civil Campaign to End Abuse of Government Powers

Ask questions for A Civil Campaign to End Abuse of Government Powers project here!

A Civil Campaign to End Abuse of Government Powers
Transparency International Hungary Foundation, Hungary

ABOUT: Transparency International Hungary is determined to challenge the abuse of special powers afforded to the government with the excuse of containing the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of saving lives and mitigating the economic impacts of the pandemic, the government further tightens its power grab and channels public money to oligarchs and cronies. This goes hand in hand with the restriction of fundamental rights, such as the freedom of information. TI-Hungary has successfully advocated for the revocation of such restrictions during the pandemic’s first wave. Now we are here to repeat our efforts to prevent further disruption of the rule of law and democratic backsliding.

Learn more about this project on the World Justice Challenge website.

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Hi Miklós, why did Transparency International Hungary enter the challenge?

Thank you for your question. We at TI-Hungary thought that civil society can make a difference and we must make the best use of civil society tools to keep our government under control. We are quite good in unveiling shady government dealings, and winning this prestigious award would help us to maximise efforts and prevent the government from getting away with corruption unsanctioned

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Thank you for your work, Miklós. We also found that the pandemic opened the door to government abuse, in Honduras’ case it was emergency procurement. I’m curious what opportunities exist for TI-Honduras to train journalists and civil society groups to use freedom of information tools?

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Dear Kurt,

Many thanks for this question. The thing is that in Hungary, we have a rather robust freedom of information framework, which, despite 10 years of almost uninterrupted government interference and a constant endeavor on the government’s behalf to setback transparency, still enablers a considerably functional accessibility of public interest information. This explains why NGOs and journalists, but in many cases also citizens are aware how to ask questions from the government and whom to turn to if they would like to get informed. This of course does not mean that the gov’t responds to these questions. To the contrary, the government in Hungary expands secrecy over a growing number of public domains and tends to routinely refuse to properly service FOI requests. Now the clue is that in Hungary, we can challenge the government’s rejections before the law courts, and this often works, even though such litigations take long. Therefore my suggestion, in lack of concrete knowledge of your system of freedom of information is to keep on asking for sensitive data and make legal cases whenever your government is reluctant or hesitant to answer. Another doable thing is to openly embarrass the government by exposing acts of wrongdoing, denials to public interest information requests, and thus appeal to the general public. Moreover, I bet you also do exploit the possibilities to cooperate with investigative journalists, something we also often do to make shady government dealings visible and understandable for the people.

best, miklos

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Dear Miklos,
Is there any impact of your works? What do you recommend for a local civil society to do something with the situation?

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Dear Bettina,

Many thanks for reaching out to me. In fact, there are numerous opportunities for local civil groups, and TI-Hungary has been actively cooperating with such groups, too. Besides coming froth with freedom of information requests, local groups can and should turn to members of the local council and to the mayor’s office. If and when there is a public hearing or just a session of the local council, civilians can visit and can raise questions. In addition, individual members of the local council can also be approached, e.g., you can show up at the representative’s consultancy hours and ask questions and raise issues. However, taking note of the Covid-pandemic, which prevents most of the physical encounters, if you come across grievous irregularities, you should perhaps turn to the government’s supervisory office competent in the county, even if these offices are often reluctant to stand up to their duties.

I hope you will find useful some of my suggestions

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Hi Miklós,

Thank you for this introduction. As someone who has worked in Hungarian media, I am curious what advice you could give to journalists on approaching FOI requests during the pandemic. Is there any way journalists can prevent the arbitrary use of the pandemic as an excuse for non-response?

I find this issue particularly pressing as it seems that even the Chief Medical Officer uses the pandemic as an excuse not to publish relevant health data and seems to get away with it. Any ideas how media should respond to such cynicism?

Thanks!

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Hi Miklos,

I find this project very interesting, but I wonder what the chances are for an NGO to stop corruption? What is your prospect of success? Do you ever manage to prevent wrongdoing or to bring the corrupt before justice?

Thank you for your answer!

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Dear David,

Thank you for your question.

The thing is that journalists have no easier access to information than anyone else. We at TI-Hungary experience that the government cites the pandemic as an excuse even in cases where a short and simple response would be doable right away.

This is TI-Hungary recently challenged the underlying regulation before the Constitutional Court in seek of annulment.

We cooperate with a number of journalists, who get the same treatment from state agencies as we do, and in some cases, we give the journalists legal representation. I would say keeping on submitting questions relating to sensitive issues is a way to embarrass decision makers. At least this is a way t expose how maliciously they use the excuses to avoid answering.

On the other hand, even the prolonged response time limit elapses, meaning that at the end of the day, the government needs to respond or give a proper explanation in the courtroom. So, all in all, extending the response deadline does not help in absconding legal responsibility.

Hope this does not disappoints you, but the thing is that we have to follow the rules set by the government, unless our complaint submitted to the Constitutional Court results in a rapid annulment of this regulation, which would be a surprising outcome.

best,

Miklos

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Thanks, Miklós, so I understand that persistence is key here.

This is tricky though, as in such a fast-evolving landscape as the COVID-19 pandemic, many press requests simply become outdated after 45 days, let alone 90 days. (Perhaps this is not an entirely unintended implication of pushing the deadlines.)

Nevertheless, thanks for this initiative, and keep up the good work!

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Outdating sensitive issues is definitely one of the intentions behind this regulation, however, we’ve been experiencing since years now that government agencies’ reluctance to properly respond to questions is a daily routine even in lack of prolonged response time limits, so to this end, there was hardly any need to amend the regulations. Although I would not exclude the factor that the government did this simply to demonstrate that they can do whatever they want to, the prolongation of the response time limit is perfect to deter those from asking questions, who would not go to court.

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Good question there, I hope my answer will be satisfying. The thing is that we cannot jump in for the prosecution service and surely, we cannot replace the police. So, if agencies tasked with fighting corruption are reluctant to do their job, we can hardly fix things. But we an at least make it more difficult for the corrupt to get away with their dealings. And it feels so good to publicly refute the government’s false argumentation and to confront them with reality. Sometimes we can prevent more or further wrongdoing, just by publicly exposing certain incidents of corruption. For example, TI-Hungary litigated the HUN government for the details of the government’s shady residence by investment program, and partly due to the attention this generated around that particular business, the government closed the shop and put the purchase of residency bonds to an end. So, there are successes in our life, which make us fell that it is worth going forward.

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Thank you! Keep up the good work and wish you further successes!

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Thank you for this thorough response! Your success gives us hope that similar efforts can work in other countries. We are also working on presenting some cases to the courts and monitoring others.

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I am glad that our achievements could potentially inspire your work

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Hi Miklos,
thanks for sharing this. I worked and lived in Hungary for quite some time - and eventually left because of the Gvmt pressure on the University where I worked and studied. The power grab is nothing new to Orban regime, but pandemic gave it a crazy boost. I have two questions - one related to covid, and one more general on power abuse.
First, I am not fully up to date with all the regulations, but I remember that some of the regulations were even imprisonment sentences for journalists who would place ‘fake news’ about covid. I wonder if journalists actually do presents something beyond what government is saying?
Are there any known cases about sanctions and fines for journalists? Are there any reliable surveys about trust in the government during the pandemic?
Second, did you notice any ‘new’ ways of doing things when it comes to channeling public money to people close to the regime? Is it happening in greater volume, or in a different way - or it’s simply ever more easy to do it?
Thanks! G.

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Dear Gorana

Many thx for reaching out to me. Let me answer your questions.

As regards the case of criminal sanctions foreseen for the spreading of fake news, TI-Hungary was very vocal about that, we publicly opposed the government’s idea to extensively sanction “fear mongering” in an attempt to prevent the undermining of efforts to stop the crisis following from the pandemic. We hold that this is a slippery slope type of regulation that leads to unacceptably dangerous constraints on the freedom of speech. See our public statement in the field: The State of Emergency Must Be Limited in Time - says Transparency International Hungary - Transparency International Hungary

Even though I personally followed criminal cases emerging from this regulation, and I am aware of some instances when political activists were persecuted based on some sceptical or government critical social media posts, I do not know if journalists were prosecuted, but you have my promise to check this.

As far as new ways of repurposing public funds, my answer is yes. Hungary’s government is very creative as soon as it comes to cunningly steel public funds. You find a detailed explanation in TI-Hungary’s 2020 annual report on the state of play of corruption (its executive summary is available in English: https://transparency.hu/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/TI-Hungary_CPI-report_executive-summary.pdf). Basically, corruption reached new highs and this manifests in the skyrocketing magnitudes of public funds being transformed into private assets. For example, I refer to state subsidies made available to tourism providers in shady no-competition processes, where direct grants are allocated by ad-hoc committees, whose composition is a hotbed of conflict of interest as grant makers often overlap with grantees. Thus far, some HUF 83 Billion have spread this way to help government cronies and loyalists, but carefully designed to avoid any grantee in Budapest, Hungary’s opposition-lead capital.

Another emblematic form of new corruption is the concessions of extremely large sums of public resources to foundations established by the government. Some HUF 1,000 Billion went this way to private pockets, including the government’s stakes in Hungary’s most prestigious corporations Mol and Richter.

I hope you find my answer satisfying and you have my promise to come back with more information about the potential persecution of journalists.

very best,

miklos

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As a green activist, committed to environmental rights, I experience the government’s growing arrogance towards green movements and the reluctance towards our cause. I tried to get access to green information from my mayor’s office but got no reaction at all. I wonder what your advice would be for such a case? Can I go to the court? Or who else shall I turn to?

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Thank you for this question. You have a number of options in case state or city agencies fail to answer your questions. We have the Freedom of Information Authority in Hungary (‘NAIH’), you can ask for their intervention. You can also go to the court. In your case, the county seat’s local court will be competent, and they are expected by the law to hear freedom of information cases expeditiously. However, my guess would be to first return to the mayor’s office and ask them again, indicating that if they fail again, you are going to have them summoned to the courthouse. I believe, this should work. Please do inform TI-Hungary about developments, maybe we can land you a hand to progress your story.

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