Daggers are out for civil society in Hungary

January 12, 2017

As temperatures drop in Hungary, the government propaganda machine is cranking up the heat on the country’s NGOs. A legislative proposal is in the pipeline to further regulate NGOs, and government officials have resumed their practice of impugning the reputation of organizations that have received funding from the Open Society Foundation (OSF). There are signs this will be uglier than the 2014 attacks on civil society.

“These organizations must be scaled back and they must be swept out of here,” Fidesz vice-president Szilárd Németh said at a press conference Tuesday. “The opportunity to do this has finally arrived with the election of the new American president.”

Németh’s statements lend further legitimacy to the notion that the rise of Donald Trump to the White House will only embolden Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to further consolidate power and silence critics in Hungary.

“[These organizations] were created to influence politics of a given country in a manner which does not require them to take part in elections,” Németh reasoned. His statements come just one month after Orbán announced that in 2017 NGOs linked to investor and philanthropist George Soros would be ousted from Hungarian public life.

On Wednesday morning, Németh continued his media assault on NGOs during an interview on ATV Start. He made clear the Orbán government’s disdain for what he called “fake civil organizations.” Németh went on to specifically name three such NGOs: the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and Transparency International.

According to him, these are doing the bidding of their master and therefore should not be treated like normal NGOs.

Earlier this week, a legislative agenda for 2017 (sent to Speaker of the National Assembly László Kövér from Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén) surfaced, showing government plans to introduce legislation requiring the directors of NGOs to make public asset declarations.

Hungary’s small but vibrant civil sector certainly has much to be worried about

In 2014, the Orbán government launched a full-on offensive against NGOs that received funding through the European Economic Area and Norway Grants program. The offensive started as a campaign to tarnish their reputations, eventually resulting in raids on NGO offices, the seizing of computers and files, audits and even the taking into custody of Veronika Mora, executive director of the Ökotárs Foundation.

The fiasco threw Hungary’s bilateral relations with the Kingdom of Norway into disarray and earned the Orbán government sharp rebukes from the international community.

No charges against the NGOs ever stuck in court, and the government quietly tried to sweep the entire affair under the rug as the EEA and Norway Grants donors, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland, threatened to withhold funding to crucial programs co-sponsored with the Hungarian government.

One year later, at the peak of the refugee crisis, the Hungarian government again set its sights on NGOs openly critical of the government’s draconian treatment of asylum-seekers.

As some of these organizations are recipients of funding from George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, Orbán himself seized the opportunity to accuse Soros and US President Barack Obama of deliberately engineering the European migration crisis so as to  undermine European Christianity and the sovereignty of nation-states.

It was also during this time that Minister Overseeing the Office of the Prime Minister János Lázár, arguably the second-most powerful official in Hungary, alluded during a press conference to operations by the national state security apparatus to gather information on NGOs linked to Soros. Coincidence or not, a surveillance device was found in the offices of one such NGO soon after.

So why Soros-linked organizations?

Criticisms of democratic backsliding, endemic corruption, eroding rule of law, pro-government media consolidation and human rights violations have been difficult for the Orbán government to shrug off since returning to power in 2010.

With no effective political opposition, Hungarian NGOs have served as a bulwark against further deterioration. Because many of them have received funding from the OSF, the government can accomplish a lot by targeting the benefactor of OSF rather than actually challenging the work of the NGOs.

OSF has been in Hungary since before the political system change in 1989/1990.

Open Society Foundation president Christopher Stone said in a press statement: “Over the past three decades the Open Society Foundation has supported an amazing range of activities: photocopiers during communism gave people widespread access to information; an internet program for Hungarian schools in the 1990s; more than $3 million to fund breakfasts for schoolchildren; ultrasound equipment for Hungarian hospitals and hospices; and more than 3,000 scholarships awarded to Hungarian students including prominent figures such as the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban.”

Causes supported by OSF in Hungary also include promoting independent journalism, civic participation, tackling corruption and combating discrimination. It just so happens that these are among the most politically sensitive issues in Hungary.

The three organizations named by Németh – Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and Transparency International – are arguably the most active organizations dealing with such issues in an increasingly authoritarian Hungary.

Increased regulation in 2017

Little is known about the proposal to force the directors of NGOs to furnish asset disclosures. The legislative agenda did not go into specific detail.

According to international lawyer Tamás Lattmann, while it is difficult to understand what Németh means by sweeping the NGOs out of the country, even in Hungary it would be almost impossible to take the regulation of NGOs out of the hands of courts and put it in the hands of the government.

“However, the government can require the directors of NGOs to furnish asset disclosures, but nothing interesting will happen there as we saw in the case of the Pasa Park condos,” Lattmann told Magyar Nemzet.

The Pasa Park reference is in regards to a scandal in which Fidesz MP Antal Rogán, currently the government’s propaganda minister, was found to have underreported the size of his luxury apartment in a parliamentary asset disclosure. Nothing ever came of the incident.

NGOs respond

Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, says the practice of requiring asset disclosures makes sense when an individual oversees the use of public funds, as asset disclosures can help in the fight against corruption.

According to Pardavi, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee receives no Hungarian public funds, so she does not know where the connection is drawn between her own personal assets and the corrupt use of public funds.

However, she adds, “if the government requires us to submit asset disclosures, then we will submit them.”

Pardavi says that forcing NGOs directors to publish their asset declarations will likely open the door for the government’s propaganda machine to target the personal lives of those working in civil society.

“Unlike political players, we are much more defenseless,” Pardavi says.

Miklós Ligeti, legal director for Transparency International Hungary, says he is not surprised by the government’s latest attacks on his organization.

“You have to accept that these attacks will come if you work at an organization whose mission it is to supervise the government and be critical of the government’s issues with corruption,” Ligeti says.

Donations from organizations tied to George Soros only made up about 7-7.5 percent of Transparency International’s 2016 budget, says Ligeti. The largest contributors to TI’s work are the European Union and OLAF, the European Commission’s anti-fraud agency.

Ligeti says it appears Németh is “a captive of his vision” because he is unable to accept the notion that donors would provide funds for reasons other than to perform malevolent activities.

“We have never denied that it is part of our mission to influence public life in Hungary,” Ligeti says. “Our goal in the fight against corruption, especially when we criticize abuses on behalf of the government, is to let it be known that we feel these practices go against the interests of the nation and that we would like to help change this. But we have never taken part in the day-to-day party politics of Hungary.”

According to Ligeti, the government’s latest attack on NGOs is a reawakening of the 2014 Norway Funds fiasco, when the government deliberately attempted to vilify Hungarian NGOs.

“We have been doing this over 20 years,” says Stefánia Kapronczay, chairman of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), about her organization’s work.

According to Kapronczay, the HCLU’s tradition of actively criticizing what it considers poor government policy did not start under the Orbán government but dates back to left-wing governments. In 2007, Viktor Orbán himself requested that the HCLU represent him in a lawsuit. The organization did.

Regarding the asset disclosure proposal, Kapronczay says it is difficult to speak about something she has not seen yet. As for whether the attacks will stop the HCLU from doing its work, she says they continue doing their work because they are committed to their mission of serving their clients and underprivileged groups.

“We do need to prepare for what is about to happen. We will obviously have to spend more time defending why our organization needs to exist, and this will only detract from our ability to talk about the substance of our work,” she says.

Ominous signs in the media

While the government is only getting started with its crackdown on civil society, there are signs that 2017 will be much worse than the Norway Grants affair. As a result of Fidesz’s continued consolidation of Hungary’s media sector, civil society is far more exposed to government attacks now than in 2014.

Gábor Polyák, a lawyer and executive director with Mérték Média Monitor, a media research think-tank, tells the Budapest Beacon that members of civil society will have to consider the possibility that Hungary’s pro-government media will run smear campaigns similar to those done by Andy Vajna’s TV2 during 2016.

“In this respect, things have changed since 2014. Some media outlets have certainly shown a proclivity for producing smear campaigns for political reasons,” Polyák says.

He says opposition and independent media do not have the reach necessary to engage consumers of the pro-government media empire. For example, Lajos Simicska’s HírTV is no longer capable of engaging the audience which gets its news from pro-government sources, and the shutting down of Népszabadság will dramatically limit the ability of opposing opinions to make it into the mainstream.

Since 2014, Hungary’s largest online daily, the country’s second-largest commercial television station, a popular business weekly and scores of local/regional newspapers have fallen into the hands of pro-government oligarchs. This will no doubt have serious consequences on how the upcoming assault on civil society will play out in front of the public.


Read more about our coverage of the government’s newest assault on civil society here.