The following interview of K-Monitor founder and director Sandor Lederer by Budapest Beacon senior correspondent Benjamin Novak took place on January 20th, 2015 a K-Monitor’s offices in Budapest.
I’m here with Sandor Lederer, founder and CEO of K-Monitor. Please tell me about your organization and why Hungary’s government control office decided to investigate you.
K-Monitor is a grassroots NGO. It was founded in 2007 by my friends and me. Our main goal at that time was to raise public awareness of corruption. That was during the Socialist government. Our first project was to build a huge a database and map of corruption, a collection of corruption stories and cases in Hungary. So that’s how it started.
Now we’ve grown bigger and we have several different activities. I would say we have three pillars of operation that outline our activities.
One of them is a continuation of our original project which concerns database and IT projects. I’m using technology for transparency, for more accountability, for citizen involvement, and so on. We have an advocacy pillar, which is classic anti-corruption work that we assess legislative bills, we try to influence lawmaking to make better regulations for more transparency and integrity, and we do research. We are the local country correspondent for the European Commission’s Anti-Corruption Report, and we also have other ongoing research projects.
To answer your question about the government control office, I can’t give you an exact answer because we haven’t received a real answer from them regarding why this investigation was necessary. We think that this is very much a politically motivated attack against Hungarian civil society, especially against groups that are critical with the government. I have to say that these groups have always been critical of the government, most of them already existed before the FIdesz government, and the duty of these organizations is act as a control over the work of the government, it’s offices and local municipalities. So, of course, if these organizations see that something isn’t going then they will raise their voices. This has also happened in previous years, but this government can’t really tolerate it when anyone raises their voice against it. [The government] has done lots of attacks against the free press. There is now no real opposition in Hungary. The opposition parties that exist are fragmented, they are not strong, they are not really a threat to the government.
I would say that civil society has become a sort of opposition. It isn’t a political opposition, or a parliamentary opposition, but it is opposing the government on certain issues.
Why do you think that organizations like K-Monitor were targeted by this investigation?
I guess it’s just because we were critical. We were identified as an organization that in a sense is a threat to the government’s policies, or to their power. Of course, it’s also about reputation. With this kind of investigation which is about…. lets say this investigation is almost about an accusation of corruption against the distributors of the Norway Grants and those receiving the funds. So bringing this story, that you misused funds, you get funds are not properly managed. You yourself are also doing something that is shady business. So [the investigation] is also about damaging reputations. Reputations, I think, are really important for NGOs because this is the biggest asset that they have, their good reputation. The really work hard to maintain this good reputation and damaging this good reputation I think is an important task for those in the government who want to work against this free civil society.
Also, it is about funding. The Norwegian Fund has become a very important funder of this civil society. About one-third of our organization’s funding comes from the Norway Fund. So if [the government] manages to cut these funds it is a huge loss for these groups.
How did this investigation start? How did they notify you? Did your organization comply with the investigation? If so, to what extent did it comply with the organization?
We just received a letter. We were already aware that we would get investigated once they started investigating the Norway Grants donors. We didn’t accept that legality of this investigation, we said that the government doesn’t have the right to investigate us because it is not the duty of the government control office to investigate us. The government control office’s duty is to investigate the government’s operations and public funds, but to be clear, the funds that we received from the Norway Grants are Norwegian public funds, not Hungarian public funds. So what we did was we gathered all the documents they requested that we send them and we put them online because we wanted to that we are really transparent and we have nothing to hide, especially not from Hungarian taxpayers and Norwegian taxpayers.
So what we did is we wrote a blog post about this issue and we really put all the materials like the timesheets, the payment documents, so really everything that we have in our management and finances into this blogpost and we uploaded to the internet and share it with government control office and with the public. From that point on they have the access that the average Hungarian citizen had to look at our operations.
Do you know to what extent the investigation is still ongoing?
As far as I know they’ve finished their investigation. They had a deadline first in the September and then it was extended to the middle of October. So they finally finished and then they published a report. They investigated around 60 NGOs in this operation and they had a quite long report on that. We were not satisfied with the report, okay, but we had a problem with the whole underlying premise of the investigation, but we were quite curious to see what they would find out and what would come out of this whole thing. They never mentioned any of the organizations by name, so you couldn’t find out whether they found any problem with you, that wasn’t published. The report had a very general finding that said there was a misuse of public funds, there were conflicts of interests, there’s mismanagement, and so on. But you couldn’t find out what their exact problem was. So we found that this report to be a communication material for the government rather than a real investigatory audit.
Also, the government control office never publishes its reports. In previous year whenever we did public data requests to ask them about investigations they’ve conducted in other cases. We asked them to share the details about those reports but they never did and they told us that this information is only for the government. They told us that this is not public information. So they never published reports. Our case was one of the first times that they did publish a report for the public. It’s a very rare thing that they did this. Why did they do it? Because, again, it’s not a real thing, it’s not about a real investigation or audit.
Do you think the report was successful in damaging or tarnishing the reputations of the organizations that were being audited?
I think people have the view that there is almost a war between the government and independent civil society. So for those who see that there is a war going on, for them it was clear this thing was about propaganda. For those who are on the side of the government, or who believe the government, or who follow the government, or who are voters of the governing party, for them this investigation was a strengthening of their beliefs that these organizations are funded from abroad, they are foreign agents, they’re working against their own country, and so on. So for them I think this was just more material that emphasized this.
Did you learn any lessons having gone through this process of having a questionably lawful investigation launched against you guys? As an organization how do you think you walk away from an experience like this?
We learned at least two things. One is that you have to be even more careful with your operational things, with really being very exact with all reportings and so on. So you know civil society can sometimes be a bit easy-going, but I think that if we would see the report we wouldn’t see any big findings because we have very clear books and they are very well managed. But it taught us that you have to be as careful as possible because they will use any means necessary to hit you, especially because you are an anti-corruption group they will say OK something is not right with you accounting, you don’t have the justification to us how to do this because you can’t do it yourself. So it taught us that we have to be very careful with how we manage our books. I think we were already very careful so this wasn’t that big of a lesson for us.
The bigger thing is that, as I’ve said, is that the investigation proved to us that there is a war going on against civil society. I don’t like to use this term, but the rules of the game between civil society and the government. which you would have in other countries throughout Europe and in the United States, is completely distorted in Hungary. The government here doesn’t play fair. If they need to use you for their communication purposes or for certain purposes, then they use you and they talk to you. But in general if you are hurting their interests then you’re an enemy and they will do everything to hurt you and kill your organization. They don’t treat you as a partner. You have to act completely different in an environment which is generally more hostile than in an environment where you can believe that you can build partnerships. I think for most of the NGOs there were signs that the government sees you as an enemy, but the investigation was a final step where it was proven that this is the case. Some NGOs, even myself because I am more optimistic, believe that things might change, or maybe there is a chance that things might be better, or maybe there will not be consolidation of power and they will be more relaxed with these NGOs. NO. It is a fight.
What does 2015 have in store for Hungary? What kind of work will you guys be doing?
We have lots of projects going, even advocacy projects for very important issues going on in the government. In the current situation we can’t allow ourselves to not raise our voices. One very important issue will be the implementation of the EU directive of public procurement and probably a new public procurement law in Hungary this year or at the end of this year. This is very important because most of public funds are distributed through public procurements, so to shape the environment and the legal framework through this is an elementary issue if you do anti-corruption work. So we will be very carefully monitoring this process and will be raising our voices anytime we see that this is not going well, and of course give suggestions on how we would implement parts of this. We will also cooperate with other NGOs in Europe to compare what they’re seeing in their countries because this overall a Europe issue.
Another advocacy issue we’re looking forward to work on are asset declarations. As you know, last year there were several scandals. There will scandals in the years before, but especially last year, about the enrichment of politicians. We want a more transparent system of asset declarations and government control and sanctions. You could ask me why we expect any change from this government, and I would tell you that, yes, it is a difficult thing. But we think that there can be huge public pressure in this area because this is an issue that people really understand. They see that a government employee who has a small salary is able to buy a huge villa and lands in the countryside from his normal salary. How can he do this with his small salary if there is nothing dubious going on? So I think this is an issue where people can have a special sense for what corruption is doing in this country.
We’re also working on legislation regarding whistleblower protection because all experts see that there are huge problems going on in this area. There will probably, we hope, be a change here too. These are our advocacy issues and there are lots of things happening here.
We also have some interesting technology programs going on. We are working with Transparency International Hungary called “Red Flags in Public Procurement” in which we are developing a system which is a tool of indicators and is a completely free thing that journalists can subscribe to and receive notifications anytime a suspicious public procurement call or notice appears in the public procurement bulletin. For example, If the program detects a risk a public procurement you get a notification and you can after the story, write your article, or and even managing authorities can use this program to track public procurements.
Another IT development program we’re working on is called “A Halo”, or “The Network”. We had developed its prototype earlier, and its a really interesting program that shows the network between politicians, business people and state funds they receive. We’ve had quite a few problems with this tool so we’re entering the second phase of development to work these problems out and to make the tool really good.
We will also reshape and renew K-Monitor’s website to make it a much more institutional website because it is very old fashion. It was built 5 or 6 years ago. So there’s a lot of things that we have to work on in the next year.
Best of luck to you in the next year!