As flood waters that swirled from the Danube this week begin to recede, a tide of controversial reforms passed by the Hungarian government continues to rise.
Heads of several public institutions have been replaced, the constitution has been radically overhauled, and many laws have been passed or amended in recent years under the Fidesz party led by Viktor Orbán, the prime minister.
Now Hungary's law governing access to information appears to be the next target.
On Tuesday, the government approved changes to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act that will limit access to certain significant forms of public data.
The changes follow allegations that licenses for tobacco retailers were awarded to loyalists of the ruling Fidesz party, a claim several NGOs and journalists were trying to verify through FOI requests.
As of July 1, tobacco retailing will be under a state monopoly and shop owners have had to apply for concessions to sell tobacco products.
However, opposition parties claim the licenses were distributed based on political loyalties. In May, news portal HVG.hu reported that it obtained a recording of the Fidesz mayor of the city of Szekszárd saying the tobacco permits should be awarded to right-wingers and not socialists.
NGOs and journalists fear the new FOI rules will quickly move past relatively simple issues like accountability for tobacco permits, and begin to undermine government accountability in a much broader realm.
Grabbing or securing power is hardly new for politicians, says Péter Krekó, director of the Political Capital Institute in Budapest. “What is completely unprecedented here in Hungary is that they are playing a game and they are writing the rules of the game,” he says.
Prime Minister Orbán has previously been accused of using his party’s two-thirds majority to implement sweeping reforms, most controversially through constitutional amendments that may be ruled undemocratic by the European Commission. Hungary is a member of the European Union.
What is behind this ruling party Fidesz move to restrict information?
Official spokesperson Ferenc Kumin said the government “received the mandate from the Hungarian citizens to make these changes” which were necessary to eliminate “remains of the communist legacy,” in an email response to questions.
The need to abolish remnants of the country’s past is often used by Fidesz as a justification for reforms. However, the amendment passed on Tuesday and the constitutional amendments adopted in March, applied to laws written and approved by Fidesz in 2011 – hardly relics of the communist era.
The government has tried to pass off these changes as “a well-considered state reform program that follows European examples, but it was simply a technical power grab,” said Gergely Bárándy, member of parliament for the Socialist Party in a written reply to questions.
“The government has not given any acceptable explanation as to why it is destroying the system of checks and balances. Moreover, they deny that they are doing anything of the sort, even though it’s plain for all to see.”
Fidesz members have been placed as heads of the officies governing audits and media. Mr. Orbán also appointed his former economy minister as head of the country’s central bank and expanded the size of the constitutional court, allowing him to appoint four new judges.
With elections coming in 2014, the prime minister will need to maintain support among party loyalists and win over many other voters to replicate his performance in 2010, which landed Fidesz a large majority in parliament.
The landslide victory was won after the previous socialist government was marred by allegations of corruption and a political scandal.
Without a scandal to rally the conservative base, the party has resorted to populist policies, including cutting utility costs, and sparring with various European Union leaders.
Tamás Bodoky, a journalist for watchdog group Atlatszo, says the FOI amendment may be an attempt by the government to slow down access to data prior to the election to ensure no unfavorable information is released.
He says there are many “ongoing interesting cases” relating to suspicions of corruption, which could be damaging to the ruling party.
Fidesz denies the FOI amendment is related to the tobacco issue and says the changes are meant to stop public agencies from being overloaded with requests. Mr. Kumin said that the aim of the amendment is “to increase the efficiency of providing data.”
However, the amendment will allow public agencies too much leeway in assessing FOI claims, says Fanny Hidvégi, FOI and data protection director for the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. According to Ms. Hidvégi, agencies will be able to deny requests that are deemed excessive and that involve data that may be subject to a public audit or review, which will limit the scope of accessible information.
This case shows the government’s willingness to “give way to a very short immediate interest when it comes to crucial issues like the public bidding scandal,” says Miklós Ligeti, head of legal affairs at Transparency International (TI) Hungary.
According to Mr. Ligeti, the amendment was originally proposed in parliament one day after the organization mentioned publicly that it would be filing an FOI request regarding the tobacco licenses.
Within two days, and under a special fast-track procedure, the amendment was approved. It was subsequently modified – after the president, who had to sign it into law, sent it back to parliament for reconsideration – before being passed with some revisions on Tuesday.
Several NGOs, including TI Hungary, filed a request to see the tobacco license applications, which was denied. The groups have said they will appeal the decision.