Trócsányi says NGO law is being politicized by Venice Commission

June 19, 2017

Minister of Justice László Trócsányi released a statement Monday attacking the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s constitutional law expert advisory body, for allegedly criticizing Hungary’s recently adopted NGO law “based on political assumptions.”

In early June, the Venice Commission released a preliminary opinion on Fidesz’s controversial NGO bill. In this preliminary opinion, the Venice Commission observed that

  • The law should apply to all civil organizations,
  • The de-registration period for “foreign-funded” NGOs should be reduced from three years to one,
  • The excessive reporting obligations should be limited to major sponsors,
  • “Foreign-funded” NGOs should not be required to publish this designation on all press products and publications, and
  • Sanctions, including the threat of dissolution, are excessive.

The Hungarian government reacted by making some cosmetic changes to the bill, but its spirit and substance remained unchanged — “foreign-funded” NGOs will be stigmatized and face the threat of sanctions if they do not abide by the law. The National Assembly, in which the Fidesz-KDNP political alliance enjoys an absolute majority, adopted the bill last week.

Commenting on the modifications to the bill, Goran Buldioski, director of the Open Society Foundation’s work in Europe, said:

“The law ignores the main Venice Commission recommendations, but in doing so, it violates EU law protecting the freedom of association, the free movement of capital and freedom from discrimination. It undermines the very fundamentals of European democracy.”

Within days of the bill’s passage, the Venice Commission released another opinion “express(ing) the view that the law . . . only partly satisfies the preliminary opinion’s main recommendations” and raising  concerns regarding the “negative rhetoric that continues to surround this matter,” which it says casts “doubt on the genuine aim pursued by the law” and finding that “the amendments adopted by parliament on 13 June are not sufficient to alleviate the concerns that the law causes disproportionate and unnecessary interference with freedom of expression and association, the right to privacy and non-discrimination.”

The Venice Commission’s sentiments have been echoed by a handful of diplomatic representations in Hungary, including the embassies of the US and Kingdom of Norway.

“This new law, particularly in the context of government rhetoric portraying civil society organizations receiving foreign funding as acting against the interests of society, stigmatizes local organizations and will have a chilling effect on the ability of Hungarians to organize themselves and address their concerns to the government in a democratic manner,” the US Embassy wrote in a statement, “[and will] constitute a step backward from the principles of freedom of association and expression embodied in NATO, the EU, and the OSCE, and from our shared commitments to supporting civil society.”

According to the Norwegian foreign ministry, “the law implies that organizations which receive support from abroad in a completely legitimate way, risk being stigmatized and prevented from fulfilling their important role in the Hungarian society. The Norwegian side is concerned that the law will negatively affect civil society, and consequently democracy, in Hungary.”