Hungarian judges face media ‘smears’ after meeting US ambassador

Colleagues come to defence of pair subjected to ‘coordinated attack’ over meeting last month

Hungary’s leading judges have launched a defence of two colleagues who say they have faced a “full-scale smear campaign” by state-supporting media after the pair met the US ambassador.

The US embassy in Budapest has also spoken out against a “coordinated media attack” on the judges that it said was “an effort to instil fear” in anyone wishing to engage with the US government.

The incident is yet another sign of the pressure on independent judiciary in Hungary and the dominance of state-friendly media that has become entrenched under the 12-year premiership of Viktor Orbán.

At the end of October, the US ambassador to Hungary, David Pressman, tweeted about an “informative discussion” he had held with two members of Hungary’s national judicial council, Csaba Vasvári and Tamás Matusik.

The national judicial council is a self-governing body that has been battling to secure the independence of Hungarian courts for more than a decade, as political appointees increasingly take all-powerful positions in the courts system.

Matusik later tweeted that he and Vasvári had faced a “full-scale smear campaign” from Hungarian state media over the meeting with Pressman, whom he said they had “informed on the role of the national judicial council in the judiciary of Hungary”.

Vasvári told the Guardian: “We did not participate in this meeting as two judges but as representatives of the body established by the constitution, the national judicial council,” adding that the pair had accepted an invitation from the ambassador.

The pro-government website Origo called on Vasvári and Matusik to resign, claiming they had compromised their judicial independence, while another government-friendly outlet, Pesti Srácok, reported they may be investigated for abuse of office.

The chair of the Hungarian parliament’s justice committee, Imre Vejkey, was quoted by another outlet as describing the meeting as a “matter of concern” and saying it would be dignified if the two judges resigned because it would “restore the confidence in judiciary”.

In a joint statement, the national judicial council and the Hungarian Association of Judges called on authorities to refrain from “using the media as a tool to publicly call out judges because of the contacts they have … because that creates an atmosphere of ‘lynching disobedient judges’,” and cultivated “an atmosphere of fear among judges”.

The US embassy in Hungary said the meeting was “consistent with the normal conduct of diplomacy by the United States and other countries – including Hungary – around the world.” It published pictures of meetings between ambassadors and judges, including a younger Orbán meeting the US supreme court justice Anthony Kennedy.

It also published a photo of a 2018 meeting between a former US ambassador to Budapest, David Cornstein, and Tünde Handó, a key Orbán ally in the judiciary, who is godmother to the prime minister’s eldest child. At the time, Hungarian government-supporting media raised no objections to the encounter between the Donald Trump appointee and the Orbán family friend.

“What is inconsistent with normal diplomatic practice between allies is the recent coordinated media attack on the spokesperson and international liaison of the national judicial council in what appears to be an effort to instil fear in those who wish to engage with representatives of the United States,” the embassy said.

Hungary has fallen to 73rd out of 140 countries in an international ranking on the rule of law. The World Justice Project, a Washington-based NGO, rated Hungary behind Kazakhstan, Georgia and Kosovo in its index, which measures how far government power is checked and held accountable by independent institutions and a free press.

Vasvári, a senior judge at the Budapest metropolitan court, said in August that Hungarian politicians were “constantly over-reaching” in an attempt to influence the courts. While he said political overreach came from all sides of the political spectrum, his comments could be seen as an indictment on the Orbán government, which has had a two-thirds majority for much of its 12 years in power.

Concern over pressure on judges and Hungary’s tilted media landscape comes as the government battles to secure billions in EU funds held up over concerns about the rule of law.


Jennifer Rankin and Flora Garamvolgyi

The GuardianTramp

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