When faced with the task of writing a post my usual problem is that I have far too much material. On any given topic there can easily be 50-60 news items and opinion pieces. Well, that’s not my problem today. I simply can’t understand this silence about the new law on the surveillance of top government officials, especially when according to Máté Szabó, ombudsman for basic rights, and several other human rights organizations the law is unconstitutional.
Who are the people who will automatically be subjected to surveillance? The bill insists that the new bill on national security does not extend the circle of those who must undergo this procedure. According to the Hungarian-language description of the bill, the high officials who must agree to surveillance are cabinet ministers, undersecretaries, deputy-undersecretaries, government commissioners and commissioners appointed by the prime minister, heads of independent government organizations, heads of government offices handling the official business of citizens, high officials of parliament, the head of the Office of the President, ambassadors, consuls, chief of the general staff, generals, high police officers, CEOs of state companies, members of the national security offices, member of the counterintelligence, members of the parliamentary committee on national security, and even the ordinary parliamentary guards recently appointed.
So, if this surveillance bill does not affect more people than the earlier one why is everybody up in arms? One big difference is that earlier bill stated that once a person was found reliable and received security clearance he would not be the object of further surveillance. Now this provision has changed. As Fidesz’s brief announcement said, “surveillance will be continuous.” Twice a year for at least thirty days each time the government can listen to these people’s telephone conversations, search their houses, and read their correspondence. These surveillance measures would also extend to their family members. Moreover, the number of people who would have to go through this continuous clearance procedure might grow in the future because the bill contains a paragraph that allows the authorities to change the parameters by decree. That is, without amending the bill.
According to the new bill, it will no longer be necessary to get a court order to gather secret information. And there is no possibility of appeal for the wrongfully accused. Once someone is found guilty by the Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal (AVH, what an unfortunate name since its abbreviation is practically identical to the notorious ÁVH, Államvédelmi Hatóság) he can immediately be fired. No cause need be given.
But let’s go back a step to the questionnaire these top officials must fill out. Some of the questions are pretty routine. For example, those about alcohol or drug consumption. The Hungarian questionnaire also delves into people’s sex lives, asking them about their extramarital affairs. Another peculiarity of the bill is that the ongoing security clearance/surveillance also extends to the official’s family. So, the spouse of a high official will have to answer the same kinds of questions.
One especially objectionable item on the questionnaire is the official’s private connections with foreign nationals. Who is considered to be a foreign national? Is a German citizen a foreigner? Both the Hungarian and the German are citizens of the European Union. What about relatives living in the neighboring countries? Or Internet connections via social media? After all, some members of the government write blogs or are busy on Facebook and Twitter. Does such a link to the outside world constitute a national security risk?
A few weeks ago there was great hilarity in opposition circles when two very ignorant Fidesz members of parliament suggested that people who were members of the communist party or KISZ, the communist youth organization, before 1990 should be considered security risks and thrown out of their jobs. Well, if that had been adopted, they could have started with Viktor Orbán himself, followed by János Kövér, János Áder, and several others. They were all KISZ secretaries. Naturally, that amendment was not approved.
Kim Scheppele was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal and told the reporter that “Hungary now allows investigation of particular individuals without any need to demonstrate a specific reason why every aspect of a person’s life must be reviewed.” She added that “that’s unheard of in democratic states” and that “the new national security law creates an Orwellian landscape in Hungary.”
Some Hungarian activists, quite independently from Kim Scheppele, also immediately thought of Orwell. Members of a group that calls itself “The Constitution is not a game” got together to teach Sándor Pintér a thing or two. About fifteen of them settled on the pavement and read George Orwell’s 1984 all day long. At the end, when they wanted to send a copy to the minister of interior, the policemen insisted that each of them sign the book before they would agree to take it inside the building.
One of the participants, approached by a reporter for Magyar Narancs, refused to talk to him in an area with trees with lots of branches because he was convinced that up in the trees among the branches the authorities place microphones. Maybe yes, maybe no. But the person was wary; Big Brother might be listening in. It says a lot about the atmosphere in Budapest.