Opinion: Crackdown on Hungary’s NGOs: Mirage or Reality?

March 27, 2017

The open letter to the Government of Hungary concerning its prepared legislation on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which I co-signed together with 24 other scholars, think tankers, and academics from Europe and the United States, prompted responses from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Péter Szijjártó and from the Government spokesman, Zoltán Kovács.

Mr. Szijjártó is mistaken in suggesting that the aim of the letter was to “[preach to the Hungarian Government] with regard to knowing the difference between communism and democracy.” Instead, the letter was written in reaction to the rhetoric coming from the Hungarian Government since December last year, closely mirroring that heard coming from authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Egypt.

It is reassuring to learn that the government’s intention is no longer “to ‘root out’ any kinds of NGOs, as the letter claims,” but only to address a need for greater transparency. If true, that is a significant – and welcome – shift in the government’s position.

After all, it was Fidesz deputy chairman Szilárd Németh who said in January, in reference to Soros-funded NGOs, that “these organizations must be pushed back with all available tools, and I think they must be swept out.” Mr. Németh even named three specific organizations: the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and Transparency International. And in December last year, the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in no uncertain terms that “the following year will be about the squeezing out of Soros and the powers that symbolize him.”

It is heartening to see the Government of Hungary backtracking from such statements. However, Hungary already has comprehensive legislation that deals with questions of accountability and transparency of NGOs. It is therefore unclear how that framework is going to be strengthened by a law which, as both Messrs Szijjártó and Kovács say, will be “less strict” than the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), adopted in 1938 in response to the rise of Nazi propaganda in the United States.

The example of FARA was invoked when Russia introduced its infamous Law No. 121-FZ 2012 that requires organizations that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.” The problem with that parallel, made both by the Kremlin and the Government of Hungary, is that following its 1966 revision FARA applies quite narrowly to organizations involved in “political or quasi-political” activities and not to foreign-funded NGOs at large.

The text of the US law explicitly exempts news organizations and publications, and organizations involved in “religious, scholastic, academic, or scientific pursuits.” A further exemption applies to organizations “whose foreign principal is a government of a foreign country […] vital to the defense of the United States.” In the Hungarian context, an equivalent exemption would surely have to cover, at the very least, any organizations directed by governments of Hungary’s allies in NATO.

Although FARA mandates regular disclosures of activities and finances by “foreign agents,” it in no way requires executive officers at NGOs to disclose their personal assets, as it was suggested that the forthcoming Hungarian legislation would. Compliance is not subjected to overly close monitoring. If the US Justice Department receives “credible information establishing a prima facie registration obligation, where evidence of intent is lacking, the Department usually sends a letter advising the person of the existence of FARA and the possible obligations thereunder.”

The thresholds for either civil action or criminal investigation are very high. As a result, “since 1966 there have been no successful criminal prosecutions under FARA and only 3 indictments returned or information filed charging FARA violations,” states the Justice Department.

Many NGOs operating in the United States, including influential think tanks in Washington, receive funding from abroad – in some cases from foreign governments, such as Norway, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates. In that context, questions of transparency and compliance with FARA are occasionally raised. However, receiving foreign funding by itself does not turn organizations into agents of foreign principals as understood by the Act.

As an illustration, not even the US branches of German political foundations – such as the Konrad Adenauer Foundation or the Friedrich Naumann Foundation – are registered as “foreign agents” in the United States, in spite of their origin and the fact that most of the resources are provided by the German Federal Government.

“They just signed it without checking,” Mr. Kovács concludes facilely about the signatories of the letter, ignoring that many of them are recognized senior figures in their respective fields, unlikely to be tricked into signing a document that they did not fully understand. If there are any misunderstandings about the scope and content of the forthcoming legislation, they are not a result of western naïveté. Instead, they are driven solely by the Government’s inflammatory rhetoric and by the fact that the draft text has not been made public. Hungary’s civil society and the country’s citizens deserve better.

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.