Democracy test: Hungary, Serbia leaders expand emergency powers

In Hungary, Serbia, and elsewhere, populist leaders are restricting civil liberties in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But critics say harsh measures like cellphone surveillance and jail sentences are over reach.

Zoltan Mathe/MTI/AP
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a question and answer session of the Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, March 30, 2020. MPs approved legislation that extends a state of emergency and gives the government extraordinary powers.

Soldiers patrol the streets with their fingers on machine gun triggers. The army guards an exhibition center-turned-makeshift-hospital crowded with rows of metal beds for those infected with the coronavirus. And Serbia's president warns residents that Belgrade's graveyards won't be big enough to bury the dead if people ignore his government's lockdown orders.

Since President Aleksandar Vucic announced an open-ended state of emergency on March 15, parliament has been sidelined, borders shut, a 12-hour police-enforced curfew imposed and people over 65 banned from leaving their homes – some of Europe's strictest measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Serbian leader, who makes dramatic daily appearances issuing new decrees, has assumed full power, prompting an outcry from opponents who say he has seized control of the state in an unconstitutional manner.

Rodoljub Sabic, a former state commissioner for personal data protection, says by proclaiming a state of emergency, Mr. Vucic has assumed "full supremacy" over decision-making during the crisis, although his constitutional role is only ceremonial.

"He issues orders which are automatically accepted by the government," Mr. Sabic said. "No checks and balances."

In ex-communist Eastern Europe and elsewhere, populist leaders are introducing harsh measures including uncontrolled cellphone surveillance of their citizens and lengthy jail sentences for those who flout lockdown decrees.

The human rights chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said while she understands the need to act swiftly to protect populations from the COVID-19 pandemic, the newly declared states of emergency must include a time limit and parliamentary oversight.

"A state of emergency – wherever it is declared and for whatever reason – must be proportionate to its aim, and only remain in place for as long as absolutely necessary," said the OSCE rights chief, Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir.

In times of national emergency, countries often take steps that rights activists see as curtailing civil liberties, such as increased surveillance, curfews and restrictions on travel, or limiting freedom of expression. China locked down whole cities earlier this year to stop the spread of the virus as India did with the whole nation.

Amnesty International researcher Massimo Moratti said states of emergency are allowed under international human rights law but warned that the restrictive measures should not become a "new normal."

"Such states need to last only until the danger lasts," he told The Associated Press.

In European Union-member Hungary, parliament on Monday passed a law giving Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's government the right to rule by decree for as long as a state of emergency declared March 11 is in effect.

The law also sets prison terms of up to five years for those convicted of spreading false information about the pandemic and up to eight years for those interfering with efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus, like a curfew or quarantine.

Rights groups and officials say the law creates the possibility of an indefinite state of emergency and gives Mr. Orbán and his government carte blanche to restrict human rights and crack down on freedom of the press.

"Orban is dismantling democracy in front of our eyes,"said Tanja Fajon, a member of the European Parliament, "This is a shame for Europe, its fundamental values and democracy. He [Orban] abused coronavirus as an excuse to kill democracy and media freedom."

"This is not the way to address the very real crisis that has been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic," said David Vig, Amnesty International's Hungary director.

Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga said criticism of Hungary's bill were "political attacks based on the wrong interpretation or intentional distortion" of its contents.

Other governments have also adopted extreme measures.

In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu's caretaker government passed a series of emergency executive measures to try to quell the spread of the new virus. These include authorizing unprecedented electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens and a slowdown of court activity that forced the postponement of Mr. Netanyahu's own pending corruption trial.

In Russia, authorities have turned up the pressure on media outlets and social media users to control the narrative amid the country's growing coronavirus outbreak. Moscow went on lockdown Monday and many other regions quickly followed suit.

Under the guise of weeding out coronavirus-related "fake news," law enforcement has cracked down on people sharing opinions on social media, and on media that criticize the government's response to the outbreak.

In Poland, people are worried about a new government smartphone application introduced for people in home quarantine. Panoptykon Foundation, a human rights group that opposes surveillance, says some users who support government efforts to fight the pandemic worry that by using the app they could be giving too much private data to the conservative government.

In El Salvador, the ruling government was mostly praised by some for its quick response to the pandemic. But some raised similar concerns about over reach by its leadership.

While nearly 800 coronavirus cases and 16 deaths have been recorded in Serbia, according to Johns Hopkins University, testing has been extremely limited and experts believe the figures greatly under-represent the real number of victims. 

Images of the transformation of a huge communist-era exhibition hall in Belgrade into a makeshift hospital for infected patients has triggered widespread public fear of the detention camp-looking facility that is filled with row-upon-row of 3,000 metal beds.

The Serbian president said he was glad that people got scared, adding he would have chosen even a worse-looking spot if that would stop Serbs from flouting his stay-at-home orders.

"Someone has to spend 14 to 28 days there," Mr. Vucic said. "If it's not comfortable, I don't care. We are fighting for people's lives."

"Do not Drown Belgrade," a group of civic activists, has launched an online petition against what they call Mr. Vucic's abuse of power and curtailing of basic human rights. It says his frequent public appearances are creating panic in an already worried society.

"We do not need Vucic's daily dramatization, but the truth: Concrete data and instructions from experts," the petition says.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Jovana Gec, Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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