Hungarian NGOs react to Ökotárs raid with bewilderment and fear

September 12, 2014


Hungarian NGOS react to Monday’s police raid on the Ökotárs Foundation with bewilderment and fear.

Some 50 National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) officers seized documents and laptops when they raided the Budapest office of Norway Funds administrator Ökotárs Foundation on Monday.  Reportedly they were looking for documents relating to grants made to 13 NGOs active in Hungary the government regards as “foreign funded” members of the “hostile left”, including the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) and corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI).

None of the so-called “black sheep” NGOs know what paperwork was carted away by the NBI.  Nor do they know how they ended up on an official list of “problematic” civil organizations in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Some NGOs have pre-empted possible inspections. The agitprop theatre company Krétakör posted a video online of members submitting all the relevant documentation directly to the PMO, presumably removing the need of  any future inspections.

“To be confiscated!”

Another NGO has already compiled a folder for the inspectors of the Government Control Office (KEHI). A neatly prepared package of “Norway Grant folders” sits in the one-room office of the Patent Association, replete with a post-it note addressed to the KEHI, that reads “To be confiscated!”.  The association secured a micro-grant of HUF 3 million (USD 12,300) from the Norway Civil Grants.  The money went towards monitoring court cases involving domestic violence for six months.

According to lawyer Júlia Spronz, the government’s goal with the police raid on Ökotárs is not so much control as intimidation of NGOs through a demonstration of power. “We are not afraid but do not feel comfortable either,” Spronz said, adding that she does not understand why the NGO’s activities – protecting women and children – are being persecuted by the state.

“We have always operated in a professional manner, never having close relations with any government,” she said. “What is more, we think that the first Fidesz government (1998-2002) did more to protect endangered women and minors than any other government before it, and we welcomed those measures.”

Spronz said the National Bureau of Judges did not welcome NGO volunteers observing trials. “Our association is heavily involved in the issue of reproduction rights, and heavily advocates the distribution of contraceptives to the widest possible circle. We have had conflicts with (junior coalition partner) Christian Democratic People’s Party politicians – specifically Miklós Soltész and Miklós Szócska and Zsolt Semjén – over that issue in recent years.”

Civil Liberties Union: Opposition is our raison d’etre

Modeled on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), TASZ was founded in 1994. Its main focuses are patient rights, harm reduction and data protection. TASZ also runs a Roma rights initiative.

Technical director Máté Szabó said documents seized in the NBI raid involve two TASZ programs that are funded by Norway Grants. The first is the “Active Citizen” program which was initiated in 2009 and received EUR 20,000. It encourages citizen involvement in important public issues, such as the campaign to encourage complaint letters to the government regarding the controversial construction of a MotoGP circuit in Sávoly.

The second, ongoing program, for which it received a EUR 170,000 grant from the Norwegian Civil Fund, involves the fortification of TASZ and a sharing of experiences with similar organizations in the countryside.

According to Szabó, the KEHI probe and police raid were designed to publicly discredit organizations that are critical of the government. “Whatever the governing party is, it would regard us an oppositionist organization,” Szabó said in response to Fidesz’s remarks that TASZ is “oppositionist in attitude”. “However TASZ was founded for the precise purpose of overseeing every future government,” he added.

The state is flexing its muscles

Over the course of Monday’s raid, the NBI confiscated application documents submitted by the Roma Press Center (RSK). The Norway Civil Grants framework funds one project run by the RSK entitled “Communal Communication Advocacy” in the amount of EUR 99,000 (USD 128,000). The program offers a news service on events organized by Roma NGOs, reporting on local cases of racial discrimination and distributing them to larger media outlets.

The RSK runs campaigns to encourage Roma voting and holds communication workshops for Roma people in Hungary’s racially troubled Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén and Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg counties. It also established the annual “Day of Roma Pride” last year.

Since the raid, applications coordinator Szilvia Suri has kept the original copies by her side. These documents include contracts with individual activists, certificates of fulfillment and travel invoices. She said that so far they had submitted all documents requested, and she herself delivered part of these directly to the KEHI’s office.

“I do not understand this large-scale crackdown, because everybody has cooperated with the procedures to date, even going as far as uploading their documents online,” Suri said, adding that she believes the raid was merely a demonstration of state power.

Gender equality is important – Hungarian Women’s Lobby

Hungarian Women’s Lobby president Borbála Juhász told The Budapest Beacon that the group is now only receiving funding for ongoing projects. The NGO is halfway through “United Women’s Voice, Equally Audible?”, a joint two-year venture with the Center for Independent Journalism that is currently being investigated by the KEHI.

The objectives of the program are twofold: raising journalistic awareness towards gender inequality – Juhász cites a Class FM breakfast show presenter mocking a recent rape case – and giving media training to women’s rights NGOs. Juhász expressed hope that the NGOs can conclude the joint project, which has received HUF 34.7 million (USD 143,000) from Norway Civil Grants.

The Union mostly deals with social lobbying, including cross-party discussions and consultations with MPs. “I cannot imagine what they founded this presumption upon,” she said. “We are independent from political parties and churches, we have never supported any political organization and we communicate with politicians only in connection with women’s rights issues.” Juhász cannot fathom the accusation of being associated with the left-wing opposition.

The papers examined by KEHI during the summer have already been uploaded. Juhász speculates that these core documents, e.g. application contracts, were not in the confiscated folder, but adds that “all of my information is coming from the press, as I have not received any notification whatsoever, not even about the KEHI probe, let alone the current action”.

Women for Women denies mismanagement of funds

The Women’s Rights Association (NaNe) is the only NGO in Hungary that helps victims of domestic violence. NaNe has substantially expanded its area of expertise in recent years, initiating reforms of legal and procedural systems, in areas where the state has failed to provide assistance to victims of domestic violence.

The 30-month grant is used to develop 15 NGOs, offering them training sessions and joint campaigns. They also employ mentors for smaller organizations and organize conferences and social welfare actions.

A spokeswoman dismissed accusations that the tender call for the grant was suspect. The call for applications specified that applicants have transferrable experience applicable to domestic violence. NaNe was an ideal candidate, which is why its application was successful, she said.

“Advocacy is an important part of our daily work, meaning that we not only help people in trouble but also deal with systemic problems, too. This of course involves offering consistent, professional criticism to governments.” She had no official information on which documents the NBI took on Monday.