Defamation remains a criminal offence in Hungary.
There are two defamation-related offences in the Hungarian Criminal Code.
Defamation (Criminal Code Art. 226; rágalmazás) : Defined as engaging in the written or oral publication of anything that is injurious to the good name or reputation of another person, or using an expression directly referring to such a fact. The penalty is imprisonment for up to one year.
Offenders are punished with imprisonment for up to two years if the act of defamation is committed “for a malicious motive or purpose”, is published with great publicity, e.g. in the media, or causes “considerable injury” to the claimant.
Libel (Criminal Code Art. 227; becsületsértés): Defined as disseminating a false publication orally or any other way tending to harm a person’s reputation either in connection with his professional, public office, or public activity or in broad publicity. The penalty is imprisonment for up to one year.
In practice, prison sentences are often converted into a fine .
A 2013 amendment to the Hungarian Criminal Code (Art. 226A) states that anyone who makes fake video or sound recordings with the purpose of harming another person’s reputation is guilty of a misdemeanour punishable with imprisonment for up to two years.
According to Art. 226B, if such recording is make accessible to the public, the offender shall be punished with imprisonment for up to two years. The punishment can be increased to three years imprisonment if the offence is committed with great publicity (e.g. in the media) or if it causes considerable injury to the claimant.
Criminal Defamation of Public Officials
Note that according to Art. 52 the Hungarian Code of Criminal Procedure , prosecutions for defamation and libel may only be initiated by the victim as a private accusation. However, when libel or defamation is committed against a public official in connection with official duty or operations, prosecution is carried about by a public prosecutor.
Criminal Defamation of the Head of State
Criminal Defamation of the State and its Symbols
Using a harmful or disrespectful expression directed at the Hungarian anthem, flag, coat of arms, or the Holy Crown of Hungary is a criminal offence under Art. 334 of the Hungarian Criminal Code. The punishment is imprisonment for up to one year.
Criminal Defamation of Foreign Heads of State
Criminal Defamation of Foreign States and Symbols
Criminal Defamation of the Deceased
According to Art. 228 of the Hungarian Criminal Code, the provisions and punishments for defamation or libel can also apply when these acts are directed against the deceased.
The following criminal justice data were provided upon request to the International Press Institute by the Hungarian Central Statistical Office. The data below refer to the year 2014 .
• For Art. 226 (defamation), 316 persons were convicted, resulting in 16 prison sentences (suspension not specified), 62 criminal fines, 192 supplementary punishments and measures, 43 sentences of work for public interest, 2 other, and 2 instances in which no punishment was ordered.
• For Art. 227 (libel), 213 persons were convicted, resulting in 2 prison sentences (suspension not specified), 21 criminal fines, and 119 supplementary punishments and measures.
Criminal Defamation and Media
In 2014, the Hungarian Constitutional Court reversed a lower court’s ruling convicting Otto Szalai, a magazine owner and politician, of criminally defaming a mayor in an article he wrote for his magazine. In the article, Szalai claimed that certain members of the local government, including the mayor, were rewarded while the city budget was in the loss. Szalai alleged that the officials in question treated taxpayers’ money as if it were their own. The lower court determined the article to be a statement of fact and ruled that since Szalai had not proved those facts true he was guilty of defamation. The Constitutional Court overruled the decision. In the Court’s view, statements must be differentiated between value judgments and factual allegations. Value judgments are protected by freedom of expression almost without limitation, while allegations of fact are subject to a burden of proof. In this case, the Constitution Court found that the lower Court had interpreted the definition of a factual statement too broadly and had thus illegitimately restricted Szalai’s right to free speech. The Constitutional Court’s opinion stressed that, in a democracy, free speech related to public life must enjoy extra protection and that its decision should serve as guidance for future similar cases. It also stated that in criminal cases courts should pay particular attention to the context of the expression, as well as to the circumstances of publication.
In another case, journalist Péter Uj wrote an opinion column for a national daily paper in which he criticised the quality of a well-known variety of Hungarian wine produced by a state-owned corporation. In the column, Uj wondered why “hundreds of thousands of Hungarians drink [this] shit”. A lower court found him guilty of defamation, ruling that Uj’s criticism went beyond the boundaries of acceptable journalistic criticism and sentenced him to be one-year probationary period. The verdict was eventually upheld by the Hungarian Supreme Court. Uj appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which in 2011 ruled in his favour (Uj v. Hungary, App. No. 23954/10). The Court observed: “… there is a difference between the commercial reputational interests of a company and the reputation of an individual concerning his or her social status. Whereas the latter might have repercussions on one’s dignity, for the Court interests of commercial reputation are devoid of that moral dimension. In the instant application, the reputational interest at stake is that of a State-owned corporation; it is thus a commercial one without relevance to moral character”.
In 2014, Hungary adopted a new Civil Code, which affects the protection of personality rights in two ways. First, lawmakers changed the text of the Civil Code in order to match new jurisprudence. Second, the new Code introduced the institution of restitution instead of non-pecuniary damages. The latter change is relevant in that in cases where personality rights have been violated, claimants can now request monetary compensation without having to prove that the violation caused damage. Thus, a finding of a violation of personality rights on its own constitutes grounds for entitlement to restitution
Specific personality rights
Section 2:43 The following, in particular, shall be construed as violation of personality rights: a. any violation of life, bodily integrity or health; b. any violation of personal liberty or privacy, including trespassing; c. discrimination; d. any breach of integrity, defamation; e. any violation of the right to protection of privacy and personal data; f. any violation of the right to a name; g. any breach of the right to facial likeness and recorded voice.
The purpose of restitution, which now takes the place of non-pecuniary damages, is primarily to ensure that the injured party receives compensation for the violation of his/her rights. The Civil Code presumes that injury has been suffered as a result of the violation of the injured party’s rights, thus injury itself need not be proven. This change came in response to problems in both the legislation and jurisprudence regarding the difficulty of proving the existence of non-pecuniary damage. In contrast to non-pecuniary damages, to claim restitution the plaintiff need not prove that s/he has suffered any disadvantage as a result of the violation. In the case of a wrongful violation, the injured party will always have a right to some amount of restitution. The amount of restitution that is set by the court depends on evidentiary elements and the judgment of the tribunal.
Section 2:52 (1) Any person whose rights relating to personality had been violated shall be entitled to restitution for any non-material violation suffered. (2) As regards the conditions for the obligation of payment of restitution – such as the definition of the person liable for the restitution payable and the cases of exemptions – the rules on liability for damages shall apply, with the proviso that apart from the fact of the infringement no other harm has to be verified for entitlement to restitution. (3) The court shall determine the amount of restitution in one sum, taking into account the gravity of the infringement, whether it was committed on one or more occasions, the degree of responsibility, the impact of the infringement upon the aggrieved party and his environment.
Over the last ten years in Hungary, there has been an increase in legal actions by public officials and politicians who seek redress in the courts for attacks on their reputations, and who seek to put an end to political and societal disputes by means of a court judgement. Meanwhile, the media and news outlets get caught in the crossfire as they seek to report on such controversies and provide a forum for diverging opinions. For example, there are some politicians who are notorious for threatening to sue, and actually suing, in response to any article that is critical of them. It is in these cases that the responsibility of the courts is heightened. Every court ruling of this type, in which the court awards non-pecuniary damages or restitution to a politician or other public figure for a violation of personality rights, finds itself in the public eye and sends out a message. It is therefore crucial that the courts achieve a proper balance between freedom of speech and the protection of privacy, and that they do not unjustifiably “punish” media outlets for publishing information originating from a third party.
An March 2017 IPI report written by Hungarian media lawyer Bea Bodrogi, “Civil Defamation and Media Freedom in Hungary”, reviewed and analysed 250 personality case decisions from Hungarian courts. It reached the following conclusions:
• Hungarian courts’ doctrine of objective liability for media outlets quoting third parties presents a significant obstacle to the coverage of political affairs
• Despite a key 2014 Constitutional Court ruling underscoring freedom of political speech and the right to criticise the activities of public officials, case law in this area remains uneven, especially with regards to the definition of public affairs and the scope of the liability of the press.
• Assessment of the liability of media outlets varies widely among courts, with the highest court (Kúria) applying the strictest standards of objective liability for third-party information.
• Courts are divided with regards to the quantification of restitution, primarily with regards to the minimum amount that can be awarded. The study found that damage awards in defamation and other similar ‘personality rights’ typically range between 100,000 and 1,000,000 HUF (325 to 3245 euros).
With regards to the amount of compensation awarded in specific types of personality rights cases, the report reached the following conclusions:
a. Injury to the reputation of politicians and public office holders
In a 2014 decision, the Hungarian Constitutional Court of Hungary made important and progressive statements in keeping with the ECtHR’s jurisprudence with regards to the scope of public figures and the latter’s obligation of tolerance. In this respect, the focus of the tolerance obligation of public figures is on statements related to public affairs, while the person (status) of the public figure is only secondary. It is not only holders of public office who must bear this heightened obligation of tolerance, but also anyone who speaks out in public debates. Nevertheless, Hungarian case law is uneven in this respect and fails to consistently apply the principles expressed above, especially with regards to the definition of public affairs and the scope of the liability of the press. Aside from a few salient exceptions, damage awards for politicians and holders of public office range between 100,000 and 1,000,000 HUF.
b. Politicians and the right to privacy
The right to privacy very often comes into conflict with freedom of the press and expression. To a certain extent, these freedoms take precedence in privacy cases as well. Naturally, the protection granted to privacy in cases of public interest is more limited. However, the concept of public interest must be subject to a stringent interpretation, as not every topic in which the public is interested is, in fact, of “public interest”. Information about a politician’s private life may be published without the former’s consent, insofar as it contains information of public interest. However, it is another issue altogether to determine which issues and types of information pertain to the person’s performance of tasks related to public affairs, and thereby become issues of public interest. In cases where courts have determined that the right to privacy outweighs freedom of speech, the amount of damages awarded by the courts ranges between 500,000 and 3,000,000 HUF.
c. Violation of the right to reputation and privacy of other public figures and celebrities
Hungarian case law with regards to the personality rights of “other public figures” appears to be more uniform and streamlined. Public figures in this broader scope must tolerate the media’s interest in reporting on public affairs, but public figures also have the right to require that the media respect the details of their private lives. The media may only report on such details if they become public by way of the person’s involvement in public affairs, or if the person consents to such publication. Public figures also have the right to keep the details of their private lives secret. In these types of cases, the courts tend to make higher awards for non-pecuniary damages/restitution, generally between 500,000 and 3,000,000 HUF.
d. Protection of the reputation of non-public figures (private individuals)
Perhaps the cases that are the easiest for the courts to adjudicate are those that deal with injuries sustained by private individuals, i.e., people who are not considered to be public figures. This study primarily reviewed cases in which private individuals were mentioned in the press in connection with a crime that they had not committed. In these types of cases, the amount of non-pecuniary damages or restitution ranges between 500,000 and 3 million HUF.
Read the full report “Civil Defamation and Media Freedom in Hungary”. This entry on civil defamation laws in Hungary was compiled in cooperation with Hungarian media lawyer Bea Bodrogi.
Recent Legal Changes
A 2013 amendment to the Hungarian Criminal Code (Art. 226A) states that anyone who makes fake video or sound recordings with the purpose of harming another person’s reputation is guilty of a misdemeanour punishable with imprisonment for up to two years. According to Art. 226B, if such recording is make accessible to the public, the offender shall be punished with imprisonment for up to two years. The punishment can be increased to three years imprisonment if the offence is committed with great publicity (e.g., in the media) or if it causes considerable injury to the claimant.
In December 2015, the Justice Committee of the Hungarian Parliament failed to advance a bill that would have repealed criminal defamation laws and established safeguards against the abuse of civil defamation law. 30 international press freedom and freedom of expression organisations had written to the Committee’s chairman in support of the bill .
Notes and Acknowledgements
Information for Hungary was originally collected by IPI as part of the “Out of Balance” report, published in January 2015 with support from the European Commission and incorporating research contributed by Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest and by the SHARE Foundation in Belgrade. This entry was later expanded and updated by IPI as part of a study commissioned by the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
A fully footnoted version of this entry is available in the OSCE study. This entry was last updated in March 2017.
The information contained in this database is for informational and advocacy purposes only. If you are a journalist facing a defamation claim, you should seek legal advice from a qualified attorney. However, if you are unable to find such an attorney, IPI may be able to assist you in doing so. Please contact us at info(at)ipi.media.