"This is the logic of tyranny" – Civil leaders condemn bill targeting civil organizations

April 13, 2017

“Civil organizations are part of society.  They are not isolated, but rather actors offering experience in the practice of basic rights, for example in order for citizens to express their opinion and undertake charitable social work. . . . The bill (on civil organizations) is about obstructionism, intimidation, and stigmatization, and nothing else.” – Bernadette Somody, director, Eötvös Károly Public Policy Institute

Translation of interview with Eötvös Károly Public Policy Institute (EKINT) director Bernadette Somody (pictured left), Hungarian Helsinki Committee co-chair Márta Pardavi (center), and Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) managing director Stefánia Kapronczay (right) published in index.hu on April 12th, 2017 under the title “This is the logic of tyranny.”  Photographed by István Huszti.

After Central European University (CEU) the government submitted a bill targeting far more defenseless civil organizations.  Civil organizations receiving more than HUF 7.2 million (USD 25,000-tran.) annually from sources abroad would have to register themselves as foreign organizations, and those who refuse would be threatened with closure.

CEU appears to be the most important cause, when in fact this is.

  • The interviewees do not want to try to understand the bill, because they do not consider it a basis for discussion.
  • They believe the draft law is not about transparency but about making their work impossible, intimidation, and stigmatizing them.
  • They say that the government is not interested in contrary opinions, but wants to smother debate by eliminating civil society.
  • If government decisions may not be questioned, then they are not legitimate.
  • They promise not to cooperate, and that they will not break.

The bill is about “the transparency of organizations supported from abroad.”  Each can decide for himself whether the three civil organizations operate in a transparent manner: EKINT’s economic data can be viewed here, Helsinki’s here, and TASZ’s here.

In response to criticism from politically active civil organizations, the government repeatedly accuses them of being funded from abroad, which is true.  Why can’t you find supporters at home?

Márta Pardavi: This is true of every human rights civil organization in the region of central Europe.  This is a given.  There are not state resources for such objectives, but if there were, nowadays it is doubtful whether accepting them would not compromise independence.

The other possibility is that the population and society support the legal defenders. But neither the ability of Hungarian society to do so, nor people’s knowledge of human rights and democracy can be compared to that of Holland.  Because those groups whose rights legal defenders try to defend are often poor, stigmatized, and live on the periphery, their ability to promote their interests are low, and the state organizational structure does not help them.

It is due to these external limitations that our work is largely supported by foreign donors.  Which does not cost the Hungarian budget anything, even as civil organizations provide a number of services which the state ought to.

The EU is one source, and there are large foundations, not just the Open Society Foundation, which think it important that human rights be better respected around the world.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  We never accepted state support, because we always protected Hungarian citizens from the Hungarian state, and one of the necessary conditions of this is that it never happen that the state dictate what citizens we protect. Because it is the state which commits the most legal violations, we cannot accept money from it.

We also have a high ratio of foreign support, and of course the question arises how much support a Budapest-based foundation founded by Hungarians receives in the form of foreign money.  It is also worthwhile adding that there are affluent persons, not only in Hungary but in many places in the world. who want to gave part of their wealth to good causes.  These foundations do not operate here for historical and economic reasons, but rather, for example, in England.

An activity involving somebody giving of their wealth not only to their children or their immediate surroundings but to social goals  should not be stigmatized but appreciated.

Bernadette Somody:  Why is it an accusation if money originates from abroad?  It is false to suggest that if the money is foreign, then the interest is also that.  It does not follow from the fact that foreign sources can be found for these that these are foreign interests, because these are international interests. It reflects badly on the Hungarian government if it regards certain universal values as strange or foreign.  It is not true that there is no value for Hungarian citizens in things for which funds cannot be found in Hungary.

Would it be better if organizations could fund a greater proportion from micro donations or domestic companies?

Stefánia Kapronczay:  A country or society’s level of development is shown by the existence of common goals, values, and the degree of willingness, strength, and money to stand up for social matters or minority groups. There are more and more volunteers in Hungary, and those who donate regularly. But there is a huge difference between somebody who volunteers at their children’s school and if a non-Roma regularly donates to the work of a foundation that stands up for Roma rights.  Also a precise measure is whether a company dares to undertake such matters.  The reason it is possible to maintain the foreign organizations’ interest narrative is because Hungarian society is still very polarized, and there are few values in which the majority, or everyone, believes.

Márta Pardavi: Of course, it would be better if more Hungarian citizens supported (civil society), and for years we’ve endeavored to better explain to them why our work is useful to society.  Unfortunately, the campaign against civil society today is so intensive that the civil activities and their results themselves have come to be questioned.  I think many are contemplating whether civil organizations are even needed, and whether they are turning to a bunch of people suspected working according to political orders if they ask help or extend help.  This is not the fault of civil society but a consequence of the anti-civil government campaign.

Bernadette Somody:  We are talking as though there are three different squares on the map: the state, that is, the government; society, so citizens; and the civil organizations. This is already the product of the government’s propaganda.  There are not three areas but rather two: on the one hand the state organs, the government, the practitioners of public power, and on the other, society.  Civil organizations are part of society.  They are not isolated but rather actors offering experience in the practice of basic rights, for example in order for citizens to express their opinion and undertake charitable social work.

The government justifies the modification to the law on the basis of creating transparency.  What’s the matter with this?

Bernadette Somody: It is not at all a question of whether we would want to operate transparently.  It is important that if we represent a given opinion, our financial background be known.  But this is already entirely the case today.  What we are speaking out against is the stigmatization, against the need to register separately, and the closure of those who do not satisfy this requirement.

Stefánia Kapronczay: In 2015 we even issued an opinion about this.  We try to take seriously the principle of transparency.  We wrote that the supporter can already be known, and whether a given source is international, and what activity is undertaken using the support. In fact, we set forth recommendations as to what operating information should be made available in place of the expected financial accounting.

Stefánia Kapronczay

Bernadette Somody:  Among consolidated relationships it is reasonable to raise the question as to what the motivations are of those who loudly participate in the democratic debate.  The stronger their position, and our position in the media is still perhaps louder than that of a citizen, the more it is necessary to disclose information about itself.  It is precisely for this reason that we still show our budgets going back years.

What principles argue against civil organizations being as transparent as possible?

Bernadette Somody:  The fact that we do not make decisions that are binding on citizens.  We have our opinions, just like any other citizen, but their expression is not associated with any compulsory or public power, and we do not spend public money.  In contrast to the state, there is no reason in the case of civil organizations why the main rule needs to be transparency.  We must not compromise our right to demand, just like any citizen, that there be a constitutional reason to compel us to make information public.  I think people would be outraged to be told by a company to publish their salary on the internet.  Why would they do this?  Under no circumstances do we wish to find meaning in a meaningless concept.  We do not want to act as though we believe that this is a real argument.  The bill is about obstructionism, intimidation, and stigmatization, and nothing else.

How much are civil organizations of this kind required to accommodate the expectations of foreign supporters?

Márta Pardavi: Donors always have expectations: this is called strategy or application and reporting obligations.  The task of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is to protect refugees.  One method of this is to provide legal assistance that enables vulnerable people to navigate the legal maze.  We agree with this, and in this sense it is not about alignment but about a community of values.   Applications involve a huge amount of paperwork and tremendous inspection.  It is mostly the same when it comes to the administration of EU supports and the Open Society Foundation.  But beyond the obligations set forth in the application and the contract, it is not necessary to meet any other expectations.  They do not even say at the UNHCR whether we can appeal in a specific case or what kind of statement we should issue.

Márta Pardavi

Bernadette Somody:  The basis for the relationship with the donor is the community of values in the goals, as well as oversight ensuring that the money is spent properly which must be strictly documented.  But it is not like a road construction tender, where the government says a 50 km-long road is to be built between cities A and B with such and such a foundation and from such and such materials, and the one submitting the cheapest offer (or somebody else) wins the tender.  Our clients do not instruct us in such a manner.  We agree that people should be able to travel more easily and more safely, this is supported by a donor, and we submit a proposal as to what we believe would be a good mode of transportation.  They require of us that we perform what we undertook.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  The organizations have public, easily accessible strategies.  For 22 years TASZ has held decision-makers to account according to the same principles.  To say that we change to suit the expectations of the donors is a lie.  There is never any concrete substantive expectation as to what we are to execute.  Naturally, it matters what applications can be submitted in a given season. But we do not change our values because of this, and we retain the activity for which there is no funding and try to find money for it.  For this reason it is very important that those citizens who agree with our activities support us with a monthly donation, even if it is only a symbolic amount.  If only so that we can stand on several legs, since this is also one of the bases for dependency.

How stable are they financially?

Márta Pardavi:  In an ideal case a civil organization, like every  business organization, should have a stable, reliable income from which it can finance its basic operation, and if it wants to especially focus on something for a few years, say that the same authority that is investigating should not choose legal defenders, then we can obtain separate money for that.  It should not be necessary to worry whether it will be possible at the end of the year to pay the financial advisor or whether the office will have electricity.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to obtain donations for that, and civil organizations must often rely on the current opportunities at hand.  But certainly we are not willing to do certain things.  We do not apply for funds allocated for achieving objectives that are not among our priorities or which do not pertain to our activities.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  If such an organization can see twelve months ahead that its operating costs are covered, then it is very happy.  We could sleep well if we saw three years in advance but the reality is at most one year.

Bernadette Somody:  EKINT is clearly under-financed.  It would be good if we could see one year in advance.  We operate with an extremely small budget but with salaries that are acceptable to committee people,  But it is entirely certain that there are interdependencies with the circles of activities of the Eötvös Károly Institute which are slightly more difficult to illuminate than defending the rights of people.

Bernadette Somody

Yes, it is possible to know more about TASZ and Helsinki, but what does EKINT deal with?

Bernadette Somody:  Originally the institution came about to transform the theoretical foundations of knowledge for use by the government.  Today there is no need whatsoever for this on the part of the government.  But meanwhile it is necessary to confront the fact that the frameworks and the foundations have been called into question.  EKINT did not want to pursue a mission other than the one for which it was created 15 years ago, but changes to our environment made this necessary and forced us to stand up for the boundaries of constitutional democracy.  The government liquidated the institutional system protecting human and basic rights.  This can only be occasionally accomplished in a decorative manner.  For this reason EKINT supervises the institutions and mechanisms overseeing the exercise of public power, and we call attention to when they are compromised, and we try to maintain the need for them so that we do not get used to this like the frog does to hot water in a pot of boiling water.

It is not clear to many people that it is not volunteers but paid employees working at serious civil organizations.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  It is only necessary to pay our colleagues because the people working here could work at law offices or other companies.  It is not possible to fulfill our obligations with volunteers; only with paid, professional experts.  Just our legal assistance service handles more than 2000 requests annually and involves 120 unique legal cases.  They often ask what my regular job is apart from what I do at TASZ.  At these times I am astonished they believe it is possible to perform work besides this.

Bernadette Somody:  The civil organizations have to pay their colleagues not only because they could work elsewhere but also to prevent them from being compromised.  I can maintain that EKINT employees always promote our values and interests if I can ensure their existential security.  If somebody is forced to live from other sources, then their existential interests may compete with the interests of their civil workplace.

How is it possible to explain to those who do not understand why it is necessary to have civil organizations at all?

Bernadette Somody: The state renders decisions that are binding on us, its citizens.  That we submit ourselves to these even if we do not agree carries a minimal moral condition: that we dispute these decisions.  The draft modification to the law about CEU was adopted a week after it was tabled.  There was no opportunity for debate.

As with the press, civil organizations are capable of amplifying an alternative, often minority point of view, and to keep these on the agenda in order for there to be an opportunity to strengthen points of view contrary to those of the government, and ad absurdum for  governments to be replaceable.  This is the democratic minimum and a condition for a normally working constitutional democracy.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  It is the task of the government to listen to these opinions and factor them into the decision-making process.  But this does not mean the exercise of pressure that cannot be resisted.  The government, especially one enjoying a two-thirds parliamentary majority or a significant majority, is elected to make decisions representative of the community of citizens having heard these opinions.

In order to make good decisions, it needs to know the point of view of citizens, which civil organizations often reinforce.  For example, when we represent handicapped persons whose voices are weak.

The government believes civil organizations lack democratic legitimacy to be able to have a say in communal matters.  Do they?

Bernadette Somody:  The need for democratic legitimacy, that is, that a plurality or majority authorize a political actor, can be expressed if the actor exercises public power, in other words what the state does: pass laws and impose its will.  Oner of the tricks of state hate propaganda is that it tries to differentiate civil organizations from citizens, where the civil organizations are themselves made up of citizens.

Instead, they are made to appear as though they resemble the state, and exercise power over citizens.  This is a completely false, fake, and malicious thing to imply.   Democratic legitimacy requires from the government that it win its power in elections that are really free and fair, which is doubtful in Hungary, but that is the subject for a different discussion.  But I would turn it around: it should be the condition of the state’s activity that it allow civil organizations to freely operate.  If the activity of the government cannot be challenged, then it is not legitimate.

Márta Pardavi: The visceral response is that a debate on democratic legitimacy essentially means that nobody should interfere in politics who is not a member of parliament.  However, this outrages a lot of people regardless of what they think about politics or the content of political messages.  Whoever has turned out for a protest, or swore when he felt that things were being decided over his head in parliament, understands how much of a false, deceitful claim this is.

Bernadette Somody: The government makes it seem that only the government’s opinion is legitimate because only it possesses democratic legitimacy.  The government speaks for the nation, and anyone who criticizes it is serving various foreign interests.  This is not democracy, this is the logic of tyranny.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  It is truly aggravating when citizens living in Hungary are deprived of their right to have a say in debates over public issues, where the government refers to the authorization it obtained from them.  The whole thing is a strange and inverted logic.

Of the three organizations, EKINT does not fall under the jurisdiction of the draft law (EKINT operates as a nonprofit foundation, whereas the bill refers to associations and foundations).  Is this really a drafting error, or the result of something?

Bernadette Somody:  I don’t want to call its legality into question, but we would very much like to abstain from seeking for meaning or mistakes in hateful propaganda.  This is a stigmatizing, hateful, step threatening the existence of civil organizations, unsuitable for our looking for realizable constitutional content or principles.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  We completely agree.  This law needs to be understood as a campaign to discredit civil organizations, and there is no point in getting into a constitutional or legal debate, because with that we created the notion that there is room for debate.  The draft law has nothing to do with transparency.

Márta Pardavi:  There was no discussion whatsoever concerning the need for the law or its details, and this also shows that they want to deprive us of the ability to serve Hungarian citizens.   They very deliberately denied us the opportunity to state our opinion of the bill, even though this is prescribed by law.  After the five-party discussion, based on the statement of Gergely Gulyás (Fidesz chair of the parliamentary committee on legislative affairs), it was apparent that, following the Putin scheme, the government is no longer in the mood to listen to contrarian points of view.   Unfortunately, the government did not engage in debate with our principles in the refugee matter, which should be a civilized discussion, but decided that it had had enough of contrarian points of view, and would prefer to try and silence civil organizations by stigmatizing them as anti-Hungarian traitors.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  We never have a problem debating with János Lázár or Fidesz.  When we state our opinion we are not speaking about a party or a politician but rather about what they are doing.  We consider debate to be very important and we would very much like to participate in it, and it is precisely one of the largest criticisms that there is no dialogue and no forums for discussion.  Now they have raised this to the next level.  Not only are they refusing to talk to us but they won’t listen to the points of views of the citizens who are behind our various affairs.

How does the law obstruct the organizations? Why is it a problem if you have to write everywhere that TASZ, for example, is financed from abroad?

Stefánia Kapronczay:  This is part of a long campaign.  Already since 2013 we hear that foreign funding is somehow connected with not serving the national interest.   Such voices appeared in this campaign that called for the organizations to be swept away.  One needs to see that where such a law is adopted, they never stop at the first step.

In Russia they resisted organizations by requiring them to register themselves as foreign agents, and forced them to do so, and when they continued to resist, they closed them down.  This draft law makes possible their closure via a simplified procedure.

Márta Pardavi:  The law does not guarantee the transparency to which it refers, since in our case this is continuously fulfilled, in contrast, say to CÖF-CÖKA (pro-government civil organizations funded by the state- tran.), whose public reports say absolutely nothing.  So it is completely clear that the government is targeting those who criticize it.  The first step was the 2014 affair involving the Norwegian Civil Fund, but legal steps taken against the civil organizations were entirely fruitless.  To the contrary, we became more renowned. Now we have arrived to the second part, and we have to calculate with there being a continuation, if public outrage fails to stop it.

It is still hair-raising that only a few days after the European Council’s commissioner for human rights issued a statement about the narrowing civil field in those places where civil society is subject to greater pressure, Hungary was listed among such countries that are hardly examples to be followed:  Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Azerbaijan.  Often the government claims that Hungary’s draft law parallels that of Israel or the United States, as though they were the same, but they are not.  But when we protest against following the Russian example, it shows just how extremely awkward it is to bear Putin’s stigma.

How will the organizations continue to operate if the law comes into force with the current content?

Márta Pardavi:  We still don’t know but we are contemplating this.  After the Moscow Helsinki group signed the Helsinki closing document in 1978 in the midsts of the most serious dictatorship.  Very brave citizens brought this about, who exposed serious human rights violations to the public, and who kept contact with foreign civil organizations.  Amidst the most serious conditions, there were always those who raise their voices against violations.  In a European Union democracy this can be done amidst a more pleasant environment, but there are times when greater risk taking and bravery is required.   It is not possible to say where we are in the current form.  Greater bravery will be required to stand up but I think our colleagues possess it.  We know each other well and we are starting out in good shape.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  For us the most important thing is that we can help Hungarian citizens to avail themselves of their rights.  As to what the administrative framework will be, we still do not know, but it’s for sure that TASZ will remain and complete its work, our clients can count on that, whether we are talking about mothers suffering from hospital infections, reporters, or special-needs children.

Bernadette Somody:  We don’t know either.  But I would like to sensitize what the law means with an example.  Assume that, just as civil organizations have published their financial information for years, everyone who disclosed personal information  about themselves at some point in time will be required to wear what they said on their clothes.  We would feel that this fundamentally violates human dignity.  The same thing is happening now with civil organizations.