Government poised to launch next wave of attacks on Hungarian civil society

January 10, 2017

A proposed law has appeared on the government’s official website which foreshadows what many suspect will be a difficult year for civil society in Hungary, Vasárnapi Hirek reports. The law, found in the newly published 2017 Spring legislative agenda, would require leaders of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to declare their personal financial assets, a burden traditionally reserved for MPs and public officials, in a move some have criticized as the next step in the Hungarian government’s attempt to intimidate and undermine civil society in the country.

“NGO leaders do not practice public power, they don’t make the kind of public power decisions that would justify the asset declaration requirement, but if they introduce it, we will fulfill it,” said Hungarian Helsinki Committee co-chair András Kristóf Kádár of the proposed law. “If the government believes transparency is important, then it would make more sense for the husbands and wives of politicians to start declaring their assets.”

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (pictured right) and other high-ranking Fidesz members have publicly stated that they plan to “extrude” NGOs in 2017, especially those funded by Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros (pictured left). Orbán has called NGOs operating in Hungary “political activists paid by foreigners,” and said that “this year will be about the extrusion of powers symbolized by George Soros.” Fidesz MP and deputy chairman of the National Security Committee Szilárd Németh has vowed to push the state’s security apparatus to investigate organizations in Hungary that have received funding from organizations linked to Soros, claiming those organizations are acting on behalf of foreign interests to undermine democracy and the sovereignty of Hungary.

“As the National Security Committee’s deputy chairman, I have turned to the committee and the state’s secret services with a list of organizations connected to the Soros network for the purpose of having these organizations screened,” Németh said in September. “So far, there are 22 Soros [organizations] that have publicly joined the speculator’s campaign machine, including TASZ [Hungarian Civil Liberties Union] and the Eötvös Institute. George Soros’ activities in this area pose a very serious risk to the Hungarian people and that is why the state must step up against these unlawful acts with full force.”

After the proposed asset declaration law was announced, Németh declared at a press conference that “the Soros empire’s quasi-civil organizations are maintained so that global capital and the world of political correctness can be imposed on national governments. These organizations have to be pushed back with every possible tool, and I think they they should get out of here.”

TASZ responded to Németh’s statements on their Facebook page, saying: “We don’t know exactly what the government plans against NGOs, but we aren’t afraid of the most recent statement. We will continue to fight to protect our clients and all Hungarian citizens against the excesses of power.”

Getting ready for round two

An assault on NGOs in 2017 would not be without precedent. In 2014, Orbán personally directed the Government Control Office (KEHI) to conduct investigations on 62 organizations that had received funds from Norway Grants or European Economic Area (EEA) Grants programs. Many of the organizations were tied up in the investigations for two years, and the government attempted to strip several of them of their tax ID numbers for refusing to comply with their investigations. However, the investigations didn’t result in a single conviction, and Hungarian courts ruled on at least one occasion that the procedures were unjustified and illegal.

Helsinki Committee co-chair Kádár likens the current situation faced by NGOs to that of Norway Fund beneficiary organizations in 2014. Authorities spent two years investigating organizations and ultimately found no unlawful activity, but the good reputations of the organizations had been damaged, he said.

“That is one form of undermining,” Kádár said. “Within the EU I don’t find it legally feasible for them to get rid of Soros support, but the badgering will probably continue, the government will continue its attacks against NGOs in its communication with expressions about foreign agents and national security risks.”

Know your NGO

George Soros’ Open Society Foundation does indeed fund organizations in his country of birth, including Transparency International (TI) Hungary, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ), and others. But the amount of funding these organizations receive from the foundation, both in real dollars and as a proportion of their operating budget, often does not seem to indicate the kind of anti-democratic subversion Orbán and others have warned about.

For example, the TI Hungary Foundation received 27 percent of its revenue (HUF 35 million, USD 120,000) in 2015 from Soros’ Open Society Institute (OSI), and only 7 percent in 2016. According to TI director József Péter Martin, for the past three years OSI has not contributed to TI’s operating costs at all, only awarding project-based support that TI openly applies for. 20 percent of their operating costs come from TI Hungary’s mother organization, but the majority of their funding comes from the EU.

“The organization is standing on many legs, you can hardly put the Soros-dependent label on us,” Martin said. “If this [law] really goes into effect, which I don’t count on, then it would be difficult to interpret as anything other than intimidation.”

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights legal advocacy organization, receives between a quarter and a third of its funding from Soros foundations (HUF 243 million, USD 825,000 in 2015), in addition to funding from the European Commission, the UN High Commission for Refugees, and the British-based Oak Foundation. The organization gives legal counsel in between 1,000-2,000 cases per year, and provides legal representation in another 50-60.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) receives 90 percent of its funding from abroad, about half of which comes from the Open Society Foundation (HUF 236 million, USD 802,000 in 2015.) The union does not accept public money from the Hungarian state, and executive director Stefánia Kapronczay believes that it is important for NGOs to operate legally and transparently, but thinks the proposed law is an example of the government placing undue administrative burden on civil society to undermine it.

“If these administrative requirements have the purpose of steering us away from our true mission, that’s a problem,” she said. “It’s a trend we see around the world that repressive governments use against organisations like ours, for example in Russia or Egypt. If we have to submit a financial report every three or six months, we don’t have the capacity to deal with it. At the same time, the information will be used by the government to defame civil society organisations and show that they are funded from abroad. The biggest danger is that the government’s negative campaign will turn people against civil rights defenders, and drive a wedge between society and those civil organizations which can help in curbing rights violations.”