Hungarian Parliament votes to curb freedom-of-information rights

In a fast-tracked procedure on Tuesday, the Hungarian Parliament modified a freedom-of-information law to put limits on access to public information, stirring rebukes from Hungarian civil society groups, journalists and opposition lawmakers. The amendment was passed without public consultation in an “exceptional and urgent” Parliamentary session held two days after the draft was first submitted by Fidesz MPs. The measure comes as the government faces mounting pressure from a group of media outlets and NGOs to disclose the criteria it used to allocate tobacco sales licenses.

The amendment puts data of public bodies under the domain of the State Audit Office and the Government Supervisory Office and allows authorities to refuse requests for public data if deemed “too burdensome.” According to the pro-transparency reporting group Atlatszo, the law does not specify what constitutes an excessive data request and gives state authorities the power to determine what data can be accessed.

Atlatszo is among a group of media outlets and NGOs that filed a freedom-of-information claim for data regarding the procurement criteria for the government’s recent license awards for national tobacco retail tender. The state has come under scrutiny for allocating tobacco sales licenses to individuals and companies with close ties to Fidesz. According media reports, some Fidesz officials were directly involved in selecting the winners. The Prime Minister’s office stated it cannot reveal the criteria used to select award winners until after the contracts are signed.