Has Europe been asleep as Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has systematically chipped away at democracy from within EU borders?
For years, we have observed Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power over Russia’s once democratic institutions — from the courts to the media. His refashioning of independent news outlets and censorship of arts and culture, in particular, have allowed him to construct a propaganda machine that builds and reinforces his manufactured image.
To the West, Orbán has taken more than a few pages out of Putin’s book on controlling public discourse and stifling freedom of expression.
As the Hungarian elections loom on Sunday (3 April), the prospect of Orbán’s reelection for a fourth consecutive term next month may be a strategic win for Russia as the conflict rages on.
Since his election in 2011, Orbán and his Fidesz Party have brought Hungarian politics into what he calls an “illiberal” era — a putative democracy that strips away minority rights and facilitates a majority rule.
Through pointed manipulation of constitutional law, Orbán has underhandedly reshaped political institutions to serve the interests of his administration and reshape public opinion against minorities and political dissidents — including the gerrymandering of electoral districts to maximise Fidesz voters’ impact on elections, and the curbing of authority of Hungary’s constitutional court.
Much of Orbán’s success, importantly, should be attributed to the control he has gained over public opinion through dominance of media, arts, and culture.
The consolidation of media outlets by companies and individuals with close links to Fidesz have resulted in a largely homogeneous media peddling pro-Orbán content — not unlike his ally in Moscow. International news outlets have called out the propagandisation of Hungary’s media sector and have raised alarm over its recent coverage of Putin’s war in Ukraine, minimising Russia’s aggressions in the conflict.
As a result of Fidesz increased control of the media, the constraints that the party’s legislative and constitutional changes have placed on Hungarian democracy have either gone unreported or have largely been drowned out by pro-FIDESZ outlets.
Just like Trump
Like his friend Donald Trump, Orbán has recognized the utility of culture as a catalyst for politics, stating in 2018 his intention to “embed the political system in a cultural era.” Consequently, the party has been able to slowly chip away at national democratic institutions while appearing to uphold EU standards.
Once considered a global haven for artistic creation, Hungary under Orbán’s influence is becoming an increasingly closed space for artists and cultural producers who oppose the government.
A new report from the Artistic Freedom Initiative documents Orbán’s actions to bestow constitutional oversight authority of the arts and cultural sector to a conservative arts organisation with close ties to Fidesz , transfer the control of institutions and universities to private foundations of Fidesz -loyalists, and funnel money and opportunity to artists and institutions with “an eye for national interests.”
According to Hungarian artists and cultural producers, Orbán’s efforts have created a situation that encourages artists and institutions to self-censor by making funding contingent on alignment with the Party’s agenda.
As a human rights researcher with expertise in free expression and an art curator, advisor and senior administrator for major arts institutions with firsthand research experience into the lived experiences of artists and cultural practitioners in the region, we know the critical role arts and culture play in challenging dominant political narratives and serve as a counterweight to centres of power.
Russia has long restricted artistic freedom and used its control of the media to advance a singular nationalist narrative. Now, it denies a distinct Ukrainian culture and asserts Russian patrimony over Ukraine.
As Hungary perpetuates the censorship of the arts and public discourse, the world is witnessing its grave democratic backsliding.
As the war in Ukraine intensifies, Orbán’s insistence on maintaining a positive relationship with Russia is weakening the EU’s united, anti-war stance.
Orbán’s potential re-election on Sunday should serve as an important warning to the European Union, European Council and the UN to recognise the writing on the wall and closely monitor Orbán’s systematic erosion of Hungary’s democratic institutions and processes.
The resurgence of war is a reminder to the international community that democracy is our most important universal value and is more than worthy of protection.
Democracy is not an institution once created, but rather is an iterative process that requires vigilance, critique, and reinforcement.
As Péter Márki-Zay, Hungary’s opposition’s candidate for Hungarian prime minister, dutifully identifies, Hungarian voters now face “a single historic choice: to choose Europe over the East, freedom over tyranny.”
Bereaved then evicted by in-laws: Kenya’s widows fight disinheritance | Global development
Within months of the death of her husband in 2014, Doreen Kajuju Kimathi, from Meru, eastern Kenya, was told that his bank accounts had been frozen, and she had been forced out of her home by her in-laws.
The pregnant 37-year-old was left with no resources to fight back, and returned to her parents’ home. “It was traumatising, and I went into depression for five years,” says Kimathi.
Her experience is far from unique. While Kenya protects widows’ inheritance in theory, the patriarchal culture and the influence of colonial legislation that restricted married women’s property rights means the law is often not enforced.
“There is an entire parallel system operating outside succession laws,” says Roseline Njogu, a Kenyan lawyer. “Years of law reform have led us to formal equality, but equality of law doesn’t mean equality of power, and that’s where we get tripped up.”
Human rights groups report that discriminatory practices in marriage limit women’s capacity to own land. According to the Kenya Land Alliance, only 1% of land titles are registered to women, and another 6% are registered jointly with a man.
While children have equal inheritance rights, land is more often passed on to sons, leaving daughters with fewer assets, and making a future wife vulnerable to eviction if her spouse’s family regard the property as theirs.
For young widows such as Kimathi, it can be even harder to hold on to marital property. “You’re considered less entitled to it because you’re expected to remarry,” she says.
But a fightback is under way. Grassroots organisations are emerging all around the country to build community awareness of women’s legal rights. One group, the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization (CTWOO), has offered legal advice and support to nearly 500,000 widows since 2013.
The NGO is trying to address disinheritance at its roots. It works with other groups to increase financial and legal literacy across the country, especially among married couples, encouraging them to discuss finances openly, and to write wills.
The founder, Dianah Kamande, says that – contrary to popular belief – most dispossessed widows are middle-class, like Kimathi, not poor. The poor usually have less property, and the rich have access to lawyers.
Kamande says death and estate planning are still taboo topics for many married couples, and that some people obscure their wealth. “Men keep lots of secrets about money from their wives, and trust their mothers and siblings more – who in turn disinherit the wife and children,” she says.
The country’s Unclaimed Financial Assets Authority says it has 50bn Kenyan shillings (£347m) in unclaimed assets, and about 40% is money left by people after they die. Concerned by the rising number of unclaimed assets, research by the authority found roughly 43% of Kenyan respondents said they would not disclose their financial assets to anyone – even people they trusted.
“There’s secrecy around financial investments. For many of the people who find out about the assets left by their spouse, it’s a eureka moment,” says Paul Muya, of the UFAA.
Five years after being widowed, Kimathi’s life was still on hold. She had looked into hiring a lawyer but could not afford it. Without access to the family property, it was difficult for her and her son to get by, and she had to rely on help from her parents and sister.
But through the CTWOO, she found out that she did not need a lawyer to access the courts. She filed a claim, and within a year had gained access to almost all of her dead husband’s property. Last year, Kimathi opened a bar and restaurant in Kitui, 110 miles east of Nairobi.
“It was a huge relief to get the money. Being a widow in Kenya is financially and socially isolating, and knowing what that’s like pushed me to help others in the same situation,” says Kimathi, who now volunteers with a widows’ support group.
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WHO concerned about first cases of monkeypox in children | Science & Tech
Reports of young children infected by monkeypox in Europe – there were at least four in recent days, with a fifth one recorded a few weeks ago – have raised concern about the progress of an outbreak now affecting more than 5,500 people in 51 countries.
The health organization’s Europe chief, Hans Kluge, also warned on Friday that overall cases in the region have tripled in the last two weeks. “Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn a corner in the race to reverse the ongoing spread of this disease,” said Kluge.
The WHO has not yet declared the outbreak a global health emergency, however. At a meeting last Saturday, the agency ruled it out but said it could change its views if certain scenarios come to pass, such as a spike in cases among vulnerable groups like children, pregnant women and immunocompromised people. Available data shows that children, especially younger ones, are at higher risk of serious illness if they become infected.
The last known case of a child contracting monkeypox was reported on Tuesday in Spain, where a three-year-old was confirmed to have the disease. Cases in Spain are now in excess of 1,500 according to health reports filed by regional governments.
Also on Tuesday, Dutch authorities reported that a primary school student had become infected and that contact tracing had been initiated to rule out more cases within the child’s close circle of contacts. On Saturday, France reported one confirmed case and one suspected case among elementary school students.
The UK has so far recorded at least two infections in minors. The first case, reported in May, involved a baby who had to be taken to intensive care for treatment with the antiviral Tecovirimat, of which few doses are available but which has already begun to be distributed in several countries. British authorities this week reported a second case of a child with monkeypox. The UK currently has the biggest monkeypox outbreak beyond Africa.
The main vaccine being used against monkeypox was originally developed for smallpox. The European Medicines Agency said earlier this week it was beginning to evaluate whether the shot should be authorized for monkeypox. The WHO has said supplies of the vaccine, made by Bavarian Nordic, are extremely limited.
Until May, monkeypox had never been known to cause large outbreaks beyond Africa, where the disease is endemic in several countries and mostly causes limited outbreaks when it jumps to people from infected wild animals.
Jury calls for sweeping reforms to Canada’s approach to femicide | Canada
A community in rural Canada has made a series of transformative recommendations at a coroner’s inquest that – if adopted – could position the country’s most populous province as a leader in preventing femicides, particularly those carried out by an intimate partner.
The jury in Renfrew County, Ontario, just west of Canada’s capital, delivered 86 recommendations this week in a unanimous verdict on the deaths of three local women, who were killed by the same man on a single morning nearly seven years ago.
The boldest was to have the Ontario government “formally declare intimate partner violence as an epidemic” that requires “significant financial investment” and deep systemic change to remedy.
Since the triple homicide on 22 September 2015, 111 women in Ontario have been murdered by their current or former partner, the inquest heard. Every six days in Canada, a woman is killed by her intimate partner, according to Statistics Canada.
The jury also recommended official prominence be given to the word “femicide” – to have it be listed as a manner of death by coroners in the province and added to the criminal code of Canada to underscore the misogyny beneath the killings of women and girls because of their gender.
“A lot of the recommendations are groundbreaking,” said Pamela Cross, a lawyer and expert on intimate partner violence in Ontario who testified at the inquest.
The inquest, which heard from nearly 30 witnesses over three weeks, was meant to examine the systems that broke down in the weeks, months and years leading up to the day Basil Borutski got in a borrowed car, drove to Carol Culleton’s cottage and strangled her with a coaxial cable, then moved on to Anastasia Kuzyk’s house where he shot her to death and then to Nathalie Warmerdam’s farm where he shot her too.
All three women had previously been in an intimate relationship with Borutski. He had been in and out of jail for assaulting Kuzyk and Warmerdam and was on probation at the time of the murders and subject to a weapons ban.
Borutski had been flagged as “high risk” two years before the triple homicide, the inquest heard, and exhibited 30 out of 41 risk factors identified by Ontario’s domestic violence death review committee – including a deep sense of victimhood and the ability to convince new partners he was innocent and unfairly targeted by police in his prior convictions.
Police witnesses told the jury Borutski was very good at “manipulation” and constantly flouted court orders, including never showing up to a mandated partner assault response program.
The jury heard from family members, including Valerie Warmerdam, Nathalie’s daughter, who painted a nuanced and empathetic picture of Borutski as a troubled stepfather. It heard from a frontline worker who described Warmerdam and Kuzyk’s constant terror that Borutski would kill them or harm their family.
The inquest jury demanded decision-makers make “significant financial investments” in ending violence, have police all use the same records management system and create clear guidelines for flagging high-risk abusers. It urged the study of disclosure protocols like Clare’s Law, which is used in the United Kingdom and in parts of Canada to allow a concerned person to check if their partner has a police record of intimate partner violence.
Valerie Warmerdam welcomed the verdict, but underscored the need for action on the part of governments who will receive these recommendations in the wake of the inquest. “I want change,” she said. “These recommendations are a good start, if they are actioned. That’s a big if.”
Kirsten Mercer, counsel to End Violence Against Women Renfrew County (EVA), noted that it was the jury themselves who added the epidemic recommendation among 13 others, including creating a registry of high-risk offenders akin to the sex offenders registry, and exploring electronic monitoring of those charged or found guilty of an IPV-related offence.
“The jury has asked that we tell the truth about intimate partner violence,” Mercer told the media after the verdict. “The jury has asked that we put our money where our mouth is.”
The idea to add femicide to the coroner’s list of manners of death and to the Criminal Code of Canada came from the joint submission. Countries in Latin America have already added this as a criminal offence, she said, and should be looked to as a model for how to do it here.
Accountability was a priority for this jury, Mercer said. The verdict called for the creation of an accountability body akin to the United Kingdom’s domestic abuse commissioner and a specific committee to make sure this verdict does not just languish in decision-makers’ inboxes.
“We are not going to wait forever any more.”
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