US official expresses concern over new Hungarian constitution, media and church laws
Thursday, 28 July 2011 12:48
The drafting of the new constitution, the situation of public media and the law on churches are cause for concern as regards Hungary, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia said in the US House Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia on last Tuesday.
Melia, who heads the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the US State Department, said that Hungary was an important member of the European Union and NATO. Her added that “at the same time, we have seen the current one-party government use its unprecedented two-thirds parliamentary majority to lock in changes to the Constitution that could solidify its power, limit checks and balances, and unduly hamstring future democratic governments in effectively addressing new political, economic and social challenges.” Quoting as an example, he said the government had replaced members of a media oversight board with candidates aligned with the ruling party. Additionally, the board has been given the power to issue decrees and impose heavy fines for news coverage it considers “unbalanced” or offensive to “humandignity,” he said. Melia referred to the visit US State Secretary Hillary Clinton paid to Budapest on June 30 during which she stated that “as friends of Hungary, we … [call] for a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press, and governmental transparency.” Melia urged the Hungarian government “to temper the pace of change, to be more inclusive and to limit the number of issues covered by so-called ‘cardinal laws’, which require a two-thirds majority to change.” He also called on the government to carefully reconsider the new law on “the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion and on the Status of Churches, Religions and Religious Communities, which requires re-registration of all but 14 religious groups, stating that this negatively impacts the religious freedom atmosphere in Hungary.” “We will continue to engage Hungary in a broad dialogue in coming months, as the government works to implement its new constitution,” Melia said.
The reaction of the government was quick: Nobody is in a position to criticise the Hungarian government’s mandate from its voters to renew and restructure the country, the prime minister’s spokesman told reporters in response to criticism from US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia. Zoltan Kovacs, the state secretary in charge of government communications, said in a statement sent to MTI that the government considers Melia’s remarks to be rooted in “lack of information and malicious distortions”. He said Melia spoke of a “one-party government” whereas Hungary’s government is made up of the alliance of the Fidesz and Christian Democratic parties. He added that Hungary’s constitution is perfectly in line with European norms and standards and noted that the European Council’s Venice Commission had said that it will create “constitutional order governed by democracy, law and basic rights”. The Commission also found Hungary’s media laws, after a few minor adjustments, to be in line with European laws. The new church laws, Kovacs said, recognise “the individual’s unalienable right to choose and practice a religion” while the state has selected 14 churches to receive special grants for their humanitarian, educational and welfare roles. Peter Szijjarto, the prime minister’s spokesman, said “the people of Hungary had expressed their demands clearly in the spring elections and have given a mandate to the government.” The adoption of the new constitution had been preceded by “the widest national consultations ever held” which gave every Hungarian the right to express their opinion on the constitution, he insisted. The constitution’s adoption “could not have been more democratic and transparent,” he added.