“Cosmetic changes to the law in response to the Venice Commission have not altered the law’s true intent; it seeks to suppress democratic voices in Hungary just when the country needs them most. It attacks Hungarians who help fellow citizens challenge corruption and arbitrary power, and who stand up for free and independent media and for open debate.” – Goran Buldioski, director, Open Society Foundation, Europe
“We continue to believe in the rule of law and democracy in Hungary and endorse the actions of those NGOs who have said they will challenge its legality; the NGOs that will be particularly hard hit by this discriminatory and unnecessary law have our full solidarity.” – Peter Nizak, Open Society Foundation, Hungary
In a vote split along party lines, Hungary’s Fidesz-KDNP-controlled parliament defied domestic and international criticism and voted Tuesday to adopt the controversial NGO bill. According to critics at home and abroad, the law unfairly stigmatizes NGOs in violation of Hungarian and EU law. The bill was adopted with 130 votes in favor and 44 against, with 24 abstentions.
“The government’s droids voted to adopt the anti-civil society law. Shameful.” commented Zoltán Kész, an independent MP representing the city of Veszprém and a staunch critic of the ruling Fidesz party, immediately after the vote.
Fidesz’s decision to move forward with the bill comes as the latest in a series of steps by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán since 2010 to curb independent and critical voices in Hungary.
The unabashedly “illiberal” prime minister’s dismantling of Hungary’s post-communist rule of law, attacks on media plurality and silencing of independent civil society groups have helped Orbán consolidate power — at the expense of souring Hungary’s relations with the West and isolating the country within the EU.
In early June, the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s constitutional law expert advisory body, criticized the Hungarian government’s “virulent campaign” against foreign-funded NGOs, adding that the bill imposes excessive obligations on NGOs and disproportionate sanctions.
In response to the Venice Commission’s criticism, the government modified the bill but in a manner that left in place its most pernicious provisions, including those to stigmatize organizations as being “foreign-funded” and the threat to legally dissolve an NGO if it does not register as such.
The government also rejected calls by the Venice Commission to involve affected groups in a public consultation on the bill, saying that such recommendations are “political”.
In December 2016, Orbán gave an interview to pro-government propaganda blog 888.hu and said, “ would be the year Soros and the powers he symbolizes will be squeezed out.”
Since then, the ruling party has adopted legislation effectively forcing the closure of the Central European University, a prestigious university in Budapest founded and endowed by the billionaire American philanthropist George Soros a quarter century ago. The NGO bill adopted Tuesday is the latest step targeting watchdog organizations and rights groups in Hungary, many of which have received funding from Soros’ Open Society Foundation.
According to Goran Buldioski, director of the Open Society Foundation’s work in Europe: “Cosmetic changes to the law in response to the Venice Commission have not altered the law’s true intent: it seeks to suppress democratic voices in Hungary just when the country needs them most. It attacks Hungarians who help fellow citizens challenge corruption and arbitrary power, and who stand up for free and independent media and for open debate.
“The law ignores the main Venice Commission recommendations, but in doing so it violates EU law protecting the freedom of association, the free movement of capital and freedom from discrimination. It undermines the very fundamentals of European democracy,” Buldioski notes.
Despite the Hungarian government’s sense of urgency in adopting the NGO legislation to address unspecified “national security” concerns and increased transparency, its critics argue the bill lacks any real justification. Hungarian law already calls for NGOs to comply with vigorous transparency measures, including statutory requirements to publish all funding.
Exemptions are granted under the law. For instance, the law does not apply to religious, sports organizations or any organization that receives foreign funds if said funds are transferred through a state budgetary institution.
Several Hungarian watchdog organizations and rights groups are expected to challenge the constitutionality of the bill.
“We continue to believe in the rule of law and democracy in Hungary and endorse the actions of those NGOs who have said they will challenge its legality,” says Peter Nizak, head of Open Society Foundation’s work in Hungary. “The NGOs that will be particularly hard hit by this discriminatory and unnecessary law have our full solidarity.”
Human Rights Watch, an international NGO that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, says there is little doubt that the goal is to stigmatize independent groups by using the label “foreign-funded”, and to interfere with their ability to work freely, including by putting unnecessary burdens on them and threatening them with sanctions.
In May, we interviewed Benjamin Ward, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. He explained how Hungary’s treatment of asylum-seekers, Lex CEU and the NGO bill are part of a broader authoritarian trend in the country.
Hungarian NGOs defiant
In a statement released after the vote, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee announced that it will
- not use the now legally-required “foreign-funded” label until being ordered by a court to do so;
- file a complaint with Hungary’s Constitutional Court;
- initiate proceedings with the European Court of Human Rights;
- initiate a review of the law with the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg to determine whether the law conforms with fundamental rights granted under EU law;
- campaign in Hungary to raise awareness about the importance civil society plays in democracy; and
- inform “the most important international organizations and international public opinion about the Putin-like labeling of society and civil society organizations”.
The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union has also announced that it will not abide by the requirements of the law, and will exhaust all domestic and international legal fora to challenge the legislation.