On May 17 I wrote an article entitled “The growing audacity of the Orbán government” in which I described the growing concern over the mysterious bar codes on the questionnaires sent to all Hungarian citizens over the age of sixteen. Earlier, on May 5, I gave a list of the meaningless, misleading, and outright ridiculous questions that were posed to the people about the direction the government should take the country.
My feeling is that this time even fewer answers will be received than last time. The government claims that they received about 900,000 replies to their earlier questionnaire about the constitution. By now people are getting tired of these “national consultations.” Moreover, because without their names and the mysterious bar code the questionnaire cannot be returned, fewer people will be willing to share their thoughts. The ad I heard on the radio in which Viktor Orbán himself urges the people to respond only strengthened my suspicion that the consultation isn’t going too well.
The mystery of the bar code was solved soon enough by experts, and it turned out that it can store an awful lot of information about the sender. András Jóri, the ombudsman in charge of privacy issues, began an investigation into the legality of this questionnaire. Although it took Jóri’s office three weeks to come to a conclusion, on June 7th they handed down the verdict: the questionnaire is illegal from the point of view of privacy, which is taken very seriously in Hungary. Jóri’s office decided that the questionnaires can be “personalized.” That is, the sender’s political views can be determined by the way he/she answers the questions. Moreover, one can consider even non-participation in the survey a statement of political opinion. As for the endless bar code, Jóri’s office ascertained that it enables the authorities to create “a detailed profile,” such as address, age, and assumed political opinions of the sender. Moreover, the results of these “detailed profiles” can potentially be used in assessing the results of future consultations. Jóri therefore instructed the organization responsible for processing the incoming data to handle the material in such a way that it excludes the name, address, signature, and e-mail address. If the office refuses to follow his instructions, he will go further and order the office to delete the data gathered.
That was bad news for the government which had tried to give the impression that the answers to this questionnaire carry a special weight in determining the course of government action. Every time a trade union or any other organization wanted to negotiate with representatives of the government, the answer always was that the government is waiting for the results of the questionnaire. Thus, Viktor Orbán’s office had to react immediately the only way it could under the circumstances: try to discredit András Jóri, the ombudsman.
Péter Szijjártó, the personal spokesman of Viktor Orbán, announced that András Jóri was informed on three separate occasions about the “method and course of the process” and “at these times neither the ombudsman nor his colleagues indicated any objection.” Thus, if the ombudsman objects now it must be for personal reasons. And what could they be? Jóri must be worried about his own career because it is a well known fact that in the future there will be only one ombudsman instead of the present four. “It cannot be a coincidence that Jóri decided on the issue a day after he received the proposal for a bill in which his position is not mentioned.” This is a pretty low insinuation.
It seems, however, that Szijjártó met his match in Jóri, who answered him promptly.
He claimed that there was no “previous consultation” concerning the shape and form of the questionnaire. He met with the director of the Central Office of the Administrative and Electronic Public Services (Közigazgatási és Elektronikus Közszolgáltatások Központi Hivatala = KEK KH) only once, on May 5, but by that time the questionnaires had already been printed and therefore no changes could be made. However, Jóri indicated to the director of KEK KH that his office would start an investigation into the case. The ombudsman’s colleagues in the course of the investigation visited the offices of KEK KH to inquire about the details.
Since then I have heard Jóri speak about the case at least three times and he doesn’t strike me as someone who would act unprofessionally in his capacity as an ombudsman. As far as the security of his job is concerned, Jóri doesn’t have to be worried about his future if he finds himself booted out from his present position. He is a young legal scholar who started his legal studies only in 1992. His curriculum vitae is impressive. In one of his interviews he even indicated in passing that he may have opportunities for important positions abroad.
It didn’t matter how often Jóri repeated his story, Szijjártó kept returning to his original accusation: the ombudsman is lying. He reiterated that there was an agreement between the ombudsman and the director of KEK KH and that Jóri gave his blessing or at least he had no objections. On June 9 Szijjártó again stated that the only reason Jóri objects to the questionnaire is because “he is uncertain about his future career.”
I might add that Gábor Borókai, editor-in-chief of Heti Válasz and for four years the first Orbán government’s spokesman, in a discussion aired this afternoon on “Hetes Studió,” a weekly program on Klubrádió, admitted that according to the current Hungarian law the identifications on the questionnaire are illegal. However, he added, one can question the necessity of such stringent privacy laws. At the same time he strongly condemned Szijjártó’s way of handling the case.