The Hungarian government plans to change the country’s civil code to limit room for criticizing public figures from next year.
In response, Hungary’s sole ombudsman and commissioner of basic rights suggested that the Constitutional Court should amend the planned modification of the code to cut out the bit that says freedom of speech can be limited if criticism of public figures isn’t taking place on the basis of “respectable public interest.”
Mate Szabo, the ombudsman, said this part is unconstitutional because it overly limits freedoms and it’s also vague since examples of situations when public interest would be “not respectable” don’t exist. Public figures should accept the fact that the press and the public are watching them closely and they should be more tolerant to critical remarks, he added.
“Criticism of public activity–as long as it’s within limits of constitutionality–is a public interest in all cases, inevitable for the free shaping of public opinion and for plural democracy,” the ombudsman’s statement said.
Mr. Szabo has been auditing a set of planned modifications to the civil code since March 2013 taking basic rights and constitutionality into consideration. Under this monitoring process he initiated the Constitutional Court control on several points of the planned modifications, the ombudsman’s office said in a statement.
The planned modifications to the civil code came while a lawsuit was in progress that Janos Lazar, the head of the Prime Minister’s Office had launched against Hungarian website delmagyar.hu. According to a Hungarian court’s verdict in July, commentators hurt the politician’s dignity with remarks about a car accident last October, which delmagyar.hu wrote about.
In the accident Mr. Lazar’s car was damaged but he didn’t cause the accident. One of the comments was disparaging of Mr. Lazar. The website said it “expresses its regret” for allowing the comments to appear on the website.
The court decision made the Hungarian news portal delmagyar.hu pay a fine of half a million forints ($2,232) and publish an official apology on the website.
“We will use all tools on hand to ban such remarks from going public in the future,” delmagyar.hu said in a statement July 23.
Sandor Csanyi, chief executive of Hungary’s largest bank OTP Nyrt., said at a press briefing last week he had been criticized in the media and had considered lawsuits, but was advised not to because his reaction would face even heavier criticism.
“So I left it at that and I thought I won’t be touchy. I’ve learnt I’m in focus because of what I do,” Mr. Csanyi said.
The article was updated on Aug 4 with comments from the ombudsman’s office, additional parts of the ombudsman’s statement, correction of the ombudsman’s title and correction of the timing of the government’s planned modifications of the civil code.
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