The Hungarian Government’s War on Transparency

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One thing Hungarian citizens, businessmen and politicians all agree on, is that rampant corruption is one of the main problems of the country. The prevalence of bribery and nepotism is confirmed by numerous studies undertaken by Hungarian NGOs and international organizations. This situation calls for the increased transparency of government institutions, and for providing easily accessible information regarding the handling of public funds.

While most governments in the past 20 years utilized some form of anti-corruption rhetoric for campaign purposes, none of them actually acted on these promises. Yet, the right-wing Fidesz-KDNP coalition managed to exacerbate Hungary’s corruption problems since 2010. Nothing demonstrates this better than the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) investigation regarding the funds provided by the European Union for Hungary to fight against corruption. According to Brussels, the anti-corruption funds were mishandled and OLAF recommended that the whole sum – 2,4 billion forints, approximately 7,5 million euros – should be payed back.

Improving the transparency of the state makes corruption more detectable and more easily traceable. It makes it more difficult to mishandle and to misappropriate public funds or to abuse government power. Improved transparency also increases public trust in the government and its institutions. Basically this is a win-win situation for everyone, except for those involved in corruption of course. It is extremely alarming that according to the government policy of the last six years, the ruling Fidesz-KDNP coalition does not seem to consider themselves as beneficiaries of a more transparent public sector in Hungary.

Fidesz started waging a veritable war on transparency in 2013 by introducing the definition of “abusive request of information” into the Hungarian legislation. The governing coalition modified the Hungarian Freedom of Information act and made it possible for state institutions to deny requests of public information, if the collection of the data would be too difficult. Fidesz lawmakers reasoned that too many requests for information can interfere with the functioning of government institutions and decrease their efficiency. This reasoning is false and revolting, the lack of external control never increased the efficiency of an organization, and calling the requests of public information “abusive” is simply outrageous.

The Orbán administration took its war on transparency one step further with making the requests for information subject to charges since 2015. Applicants have to pay the expenses of data collection and copying done by the government. The charges determined by the law are quite low – compared to the budget of a ministry for example – but high enough so that individuals might reconsider their requests. The main problem with charging citizens for public information is that individuals making requests are tax-paying citizens exercising their constitutional right to know where and how their tax money is spent. Making them pay for this is a scare tactic used to discourage them.

While the Fidesz was modifying the Freedom of Information act to narrow the access of citizens and civil organizations to public information, journalists and NGOs were constantly denied information by the state, in most cases unlawfully. Media companies often have to sue government institutions to receive the information they requested, and while court decisions usually force the government to hand over the data, the lawsuits take a long time to finish and the information sometimes becomes obsolete by the time they acquire it. Institutions can basically withhold any information they want until a court decision and they can do this without any serious repercussions.

Recently, the Fidesz decided to further diminish citizens’ rights to having access to public information. While the Constitution and the Freedom of Information Act makes it compulsory for state owned companies to be transparent, a new draft proposal of the Fidesz would make the Hungarian Post Ltd. an exception to this rule. If this proposal is passed, the Freedom of Information Act will not apply to the Hungarian Post and there will be a precedent for obscuring information pertaining to the management of state owned companies.

The Fidesz-KDNP government has spent the last few years diminishing transparency what is alarming and dangerous. Possibilities of exercising democratic control over public funds are being constantly limited by the Orbán administration and this practice has been exacerbating the widespread corruption in the country.

Peter Bence Stumpf
Free Market Foundation