BUDAPEST, Hungary – The Hungarian prime minister, who has vowed to remake his country into a “non-liberal” state as he moves closer to Moscow, called Friday for mandatory drug testing of journalists and politicians.
Viktor Orban’s plan alarmed critics, who called it an attack on civil liberties and a cynical attempt to combat his declining popularity.
A member of his governing Fidesz party had recently suggested mandatory annual drug tests for 12- to 18-year-olds as well, but that plan has apparently been dropped.
In an interview on state radio, Orban said drug use and the “drug mafia” are a growing threat and that his government will fight back during the rest of its term, which lasts until 2018.
“Politicians, journalists and those filling positions of public trust have to be included (in the drug tests) because it is clear that those who consume drugs cannot be relied on in the fight against drugs,” Orban said.
“We have to clarify where everyone stands. We have to announce this fight, and the drug mafia has to be squeezed out of Hungary with the most draconian punishments and the most precise procedures by the authorities,” Orban said.
Journalists and civil-rights leaders were outraged.
The head of the Association of Hungarian Journalists said that while it was too soon to give a definitive opinion about the proposal, it was a reminder of darker times.
“If it becomes law, then I would say it creates a very sad situation in Hungarian life by bringing back the concept of collective guilt, an evil memory,” Karoly Toth said.
The proposal suggests that “media workers are some sort of depraved people,” said Zsuzsanna Gyongyosi, president of the Association of Independent Journalists.
At the same time, Gyongyosi said she agreed with the idea put forward by an opposition group that would make all lawmakers in parliament take a breath alcohol test before entering the chambers.
Balazs Gulyas, who has organized recent anti-Orban protests, said the drug tests would “stigmatize journalists as drug users” and were another effort to limit media freedoms.
“It is quite scary that now the government is directly targeting journalists,” said Gulyas, a leader of large rallies against a now-shelved plan by Orban to tax Internet use.
Since he took power in 2010, Orban has consolidated power for his conservative Fidesz party, tightening control over the media and courts and attempting to crack down on independent civic groups.
The U.S. government and international organizations have expressed alarm at what they see as a weakening of democratic guarantees in the country, which threw off communism 25 years ago and is now a member of the European Union.
A defining moment in Orban’s political journey came in July, when he said he was building “an illiberal state, a non-liberal state,” and cited Russia, China, Turkey and Singapore as successful models. At the same time, he has been moving closer to Russia, forging energy deals with Moscow and criticizing Western sanctions imposed after the Kremlin’s aggressions in Ukraine.
Critics such as Gulyas say the drug-testing proposal is also a way for Orban to distract attention from the economic malaise and other frustrations in the country.
“How serious can this drug mafia be if Orban didn’t talk about it for four years?” Gulyas said. “Either he was blind during his previous term or this is just a cheap populist ploy.”
Polling company Ispos estimated that the Fidesz party has lost 800,000 voters in the past two months, its popularity among all voters falling from 35 per cent in October to 25 per cent in December.
While the far-right Jobbik party rose to 14 per cent from 12 per cent, most of the disaffected Fidesz voters now seem to be undecided. Those saying they had no party preference rose from 30 per cent to 39 per cent in those two months.
According to one expert, alcohol abuse is a far greater problem. The country of nearly 10 million has some 800,000 alcoholics and 20,000 drug addicts, says toxicologist Gabor Zacher, head of emergency services at Military Hospital in Budapest.
Critics said Orban’s 2010 move to give tax exemptions to home distillers of palinka, a traditional fruit brandy, showed disregard for the alcoholism scourge. The exemption was struck down by European Union earlier this year.
Orban’s party overwhelmingly won re-election earlier this year after changing the election rules in its favour. But his popularity seems under threat, with several large street protests in past weeks and opinion polls showing falling support for Fidesz.