The ministry is not allowed to ban the press from hospitals

February 03. 2022. – 01:47 PM

The ministry is not allowed to ban the press from hospitals
A photo published by that was taken in the COVID ward of the Ferenc Flór Hospital of Pest County in Kistarcsa on April 30th, 2020 – Photo: Károly Árvai / kormá / MTI A photo published by that was taken in the COVID ward of the Ferenc Flór Hospital of Pest County in Kistarcsa on April 30th, 2020 – Photo: Károly Árvai / kormá / MTI


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The Ministry of Human Resources (EMMI) unlawfully kept the press, including Telex, out of hospitals. Such was the verdict of the Metropolitan Court of Budapest after we challenged the decision to ban all media outlets other than public television and MTI from health institutions during the epidemic. The court ruled that it is not the ministry but hospital directors who have the authority to decide who is allowed into their facilities. Translated by Dominic Spadacene.

The reasoning of the Metropolitan Court's judgment states that EMMI had decided on a matter outside of its competence when it communicated to Telex, "Since the pandemic is still spreading vigorously and the pandemic alert is still in place, we will provide the press with photos and footage with the assistance of MTVA-MTI" (a state-owned news agency).

According to the court, EMMI only exercises managerial authority over hospitals, and the ministry didn't even cite any legislation under which it could legally decide on press requests.

The court said that henceforth it shall be up to the directors of the health institutions to decide on our requests for taking photos or preparing reports.

Much of what is going on behind hospital walls remains hidden from the public

As we have already reported several times, the independent media was not allowed into hospitals or health institutions during the coronavirus outbreak. As such, we didn't get the opportunity to report on what the fight against the pandemic looked like on the frontline. Meanwhile, parallel realities of the pandemic have evolved, and the press would have been better able to clarify the facts if it were allowed to show the public what is happening inside of hospitals – for example, the scale of the problems being faced in intensive care units.

Telex has asked for permission to take photos more than 50 times from a dozen institutions, and not a single one of them allowed us to enter.

Our requests were often forwarded to the Ministry of Human Resources or rejected outright on the grounds that the ministry had decided that only public media could be admitted. For this reason, in March of last year, 28 editorial offices jointly sent an open letter requesting that press staff be allowed into the COVID wards of hospitals and vaccination stations, that health workers be allowed to comment freely, and that the Operational Group provide actual information round the clock.

Then, with the help of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), we took the case to court, where we asked for a reversal of EMMI's decision to deny our requests for permission to photograph and report from hospitals and institutions affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Telex was represented in court by lawyer Dr. Zsolt Szegedi.

It wasn't smooth sailing in court

In court, EMMI originally sought to have Telex's claim dismissed without any substantive discussion. At this stage, the ministry itself argued that press inquiries should not be decided on by EMMI but by hospital directors. Based on their interpretation, only individual institutions could be sued. This argument was accepted by the Metropolitan Court of Budapest at first instance in June 2021. Telex subsequently appealed.

Following our appeal, the Supreme Court ruled that EMMI's communication did not indicate that it had no jurisdiction to act on Telex's requests to take photos, nor did it refer our editorial staff (back) to hospital directors. Rather,

"The electronic reply issued in the form of an informational notice contains a clear decision by stating in the first person that 'we will provide photos and footage with the assistance of MTVA-MTI.'"

As such, last October, the Supreme Court repealed the court order that dismissed Telex's application at first instance, so the Metropolitan Court of Budapest had to hear the case on the merits, bring forth an action, and issue a verdict. And on January 27th, 2022, the court annulled the above-quoted "decision made in the form of an informational notice" of the Ministry of Human Resources, based on which only public media had been allowed into hospitals.

From now on, it's up to hospital directors

Emese Pásztor, acting director of HCLU's Political Freedoms Project, highlighted two points regarding the final judgment in Telex's case. One is that EMMI did not issue a resolution banning the press from health institutions but rather only sent an email for the purposes of informing that access was not possible. In other words, the ministry made a decision that, due to its lack of jurisdiction, it couldn't have been able to make in the first place. Then it tried to deflect responsibility by claiming that it was not an official resolution.

The fact that the court ruled the ministry's response to be a "decision made in the form of an informational notice" did not permit EMMI to absolve itself of responsibility for its decision to restrict press freedom, explained Pásztor. According to her, the court's final judgment is a significant outcome: after all, without a substantive legal remedy, " the freedom of the press is just an empty motto."

Besides, the HCLU expert stressed that although the ruling in favor of Telex does not necessarily mean that our reporters will be let in to take photos, it is a significant step forward. Indeed, the court stated that such a decision cannot be centralized but rather must be made by hospital directors in every instance.

"I very much hope that after all this there will be a director who will let the press in because not only would it not hinder defensive efforts against the pandemic, it could very well stimulate them. If we can see that the problem is big, we'll be more inclined to believe it,"

said Pásztor, who considers it untenable that, so far, news coverage in Hungarian on COVID wards has only been possible beyond our borders, apart from public media footage.

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