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In Hungary, 62-Year-Old Lawyer Says It's His 'Duty' To Deface Government Billboards

Activist Peter Heindl stands next to a poster promoting the Hungarian government's slogan of "Hungary goes forward! Not backward!" in 2021. He says the billboards are unconstitutional and has reported the campaign to prosecutors.
Activist Peter Heindl stands next to a poster promoting the Hungarian government's slogan of "Hungary goes forward! Not backward!" in 2021. He says the billboards are unconstitutional and has reported the campaign to prosecutors.

PECS, Hungary -- A ladder, spray paint, and glue aren't 62-year-old lawyer Peter Heindl's first choice as the tools of his trade.

The longtime minority-rights defender's appeals to the election watchdog, prosecutors, and the courts have been stymied for over a year, so most days Heindl can be found patrolling the roadsides of his southern Hungarian county to deface government billboards and posters in an effort to challenge the ruling Fidesz party's narrative.

He insists it is Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government that's breaking the law, not him. "The government puts up the billboards supporting the ruling parties to hang on to power and extend it indefinitely," he told RFE/RL's Hungarian Service last week, adding that such actions "deny and mock the basic rules of democracy."

"A freedom-loving person has a duty to act against this," he said.

The public notices that he objects to usually mirror Fidesz slogans, baldly bash the leftwing opposition, scaremonger on hot-button issues like gender identity, or echo Orban's EU scapegoating -- always ostensibly in the interests of the state and all 10 million Hungarians.

Following a year of complaints to local and state prosecutors, the Hungarian Election Commission, and even Europe's top human rights court, his campaign of spray-paint civil disobedience faces a crucial test.

Informed in December 2022 that prosecutors in Pecs had officially reclassified an alleged violation to criminal vandalism after he rejected his own acquittal on principle, Heindl this month asked a local court to request a preliminary ruling from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg before hearing the case.

The Pecs district court has one month to decide whether to schedule proceedings based on the indictment, a spokesman told RFE/RL's Hungarian Service, after which it can choose to ask for the European court's input.

The case could resonate widely in Hungary, at least, where the government is constantly at loggerheads with the European Union over Orban's steady concentration of power, perceived democratic backsliding, and Budapest's fealty to the rule of law and other EU "core principles."

The self-styled whistle-blower has been driving the streets of Baranya County with his ladder and his outrage almost daily since November 2021, on the hunt for partisanship disguised as public-service announcements.

A professional lawyer on issues of minority rights, Heindl was otherwise careful to act within the law during a nighttime trip to commit his form of civil disobedience ahead of last year's elections. With an RFE/RL Hungarian Service correspondent accompanying him, he stayed 10 kilometers an hour under the posted speed limits. There were no rolling stops at stop signs. He always used his blinkers. And once he found a target, even on a deserted street, he made sure to park legally.

It was a roadside billboard urging parents to "Protect our children!" by turning out for a Fidesz-backed referendum on election day that banned or restricted discussions of sexual orientation or transgender issues, both of which figure prominently in the party's conservative social messaging. Once up on his ladder with a flashlight, Heindl sprayed "from Putin" in black letters underneath "Protect our children!" Other times, his addendum might read "from Fidesz."

Heindl sprayed "from Putin" in black letters underneath the words "Protect our children!" on a billboard. Other times, his addendum might read "from Fidesz."
Heindl sprayed "from Putin" in black letters underneath the words "Protect our children!" on a billboard. Other times, his addendum might read "from Fidesz."

He frequently works in broad daylight, though, and says he has rarely if ever been confronted by passersby or even police.

Some of his most frequent early targets included ubiquitous posters paid for by the ostensibly nonpartisan Government Information Center reading, "Hungary is moving forward! Not backward." Once campaigning began for last April's elections, they were closely mirrored by the Fidesz slogan "Let's go forward, not backward."

Sometimes he'll paste A4-sized sheets of paper titled "That's Not Democracy!" explaining a Constitutional Court verdict from 2008 that prescribes that "the state must remain neutral in the struggle between political parties." He might even add more sheets noting that Germany's Constitutional Court ruled the same way in 2020.

In complaints to public prosecutors as well as the ECHR, he has cited those and other precedents barring the state from campaigning or advocating on behalf of specific parties.

"If we don't take action against this, we are acquiescing to injustice and unequal opportunities," Heindl argued to prosecutors in one of his first legal battles. "The parties can do this in the fight against each other, but the government has no right to do it."

International observers have tended to agree with Heindl, in both general and specific terms.

In their conclusions from the April 2022 elections, monitors from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) cited "a pervasive overlap between the ruling coalition's campaign messages and the government’s information campaigns, giving an advantage to the ruling coalition and blurring the line between state and party."

It was a repeat of a major criticism from Hungary's elections four years earlier and just one on a long list of Fidesz advantages that tilted the playing field, which also included unfair use of administrative resources, a huge advantage in airtime in a captive media environment, and curbs on independent access to public information.

Fidesz won last year's elections in another landslide, its fourth in 12 years, giving Orban four more years as prime minister with a two-thirds supermajority that largely allows him to ignore the opposition.

Two days after the voting, investigators relaunched an investigation with Heindl's actions amending or appending billboards reclassified from a minor violation to a crime.

In his defense, he argued that by repainting the posters he was actually trying to prevent a government crime.

A Pecs court acquitted him in April 2022 based on a lack of evidence of wrongdoing, the difficulty of identifying a victim, and the minor extent of the damage.

Unsatisfied, Heindl appealed his acquittal. He argued that he was acting in the legitimate self-defense of society and that government officials had committed a crime by acting in the interest of a particular political party.

He was gambling that a judgment in his favor would allow other Hungarians to deface or even to tear down other similar posters and billboards.

In August 2022, he appealed to the European court in Strasbourg. But with its backlog of disputes, that institution could take years to hear his case.

Unless, as Heindl is betting, the Pecs court decides in the coming weeks that Hungarian justice might be better served in the long run by first hearing what Europe's top human rights court has to say on the matter.

Either way, he says he's not disappearing from the public eye unless state institutions' partisan appeals via state-funded billboards and posters do too.

"I will continue my nonviolent struggle using the tools of civil disobedience until success is achieved," Heindl said last week. "I’m confident that there will be more and more of us who do the same, and that together we will be able to restore the democratic rule of law in Hungary."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Hungarian Service correspondent Tamas Ungar
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    Tamas Ungar

    Tamas Ungar is the Pecs correspondent of RFE/RL's Hungarian Service. He started his career as a journalist at Bekes Megyei Nepujsag in 1983, then he was a staff member of Nepszabadsag in Pecs from 1988 to 2016, until the paper was closed. Since then, he has been working as a retired freelancer for independent newspapers.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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