Hungary’s ominous rhetoric on NGOs condemned

Two leading European figures have condemned the decision by Hungary’s government to label non-government organisations ‘foreign agents’, and has criticised them for using ‘accusatory rhetoric which stigmatises the NGOs’. The comments follow the announcement last autumn that the Hungarian government wants to ‘sweep away’ certain NGOs, and that it had accused 22 of them of illegal activities.

Last September the government of Viktor Orbán said it would draw up a new law to regulate NGOs. Speaking to a right-wing magazine Pesti Sracok, the vice-president of the governing Fidesz party Szilárd Németh, who is also the vice-president of the national security committee of the Hungarian parliament, said he had asked the intelligence services to investigate all NGOs receiving money from the Hungarian-born financier George Soros.

Németh claimed there are 22 NGOs which were ‘acting illegally under Hungarian and EU law’, and said he wanted to ‘sweep them out of the country’. Among the organisations funded by Soros are the Hungarian branch of Transparency International, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the human rights NGO the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, and the prestigious foundation of investigative journalists Atlatszo. The government has not given any information on which laws were violated by the NGOs.

The draft new law was leaked on 2 April. It requires NGOs which receive more than HUF 7.2 million (about €23,300) a year to declare themselves as ‘organisations funded from foreign sources’. The legislative programme for 2017 says the law will be passed in April.

On 7 March, the president of the Council of Europe’s Conference of International NGOs, Anna Rurka, and the president of the Expert Council on NGO Law, Cyril Ritchie, issued a joint statement expressing concern about the intentions of the Hungarian government, and reminding it that, as a member of the Council of Europe it has signed up to the Council’s principles. In particular, they referred to guidance to member states on NGOs, saying: ‘NGOs and associations have the fundamental right to peacefully disagree with governmental policies, and to peacefully express their opinions, without being muzzled by the authorities.’

In their statement they remind Hungary of various principles of democracy, and add: ‘We regret that the Hungarian government uses accusatory rhetoric which stigmatises the NGOs. As we have seen in other countries, such rhetoric has a negative effect on NGOs’ ability to operate and raise funds, and address people’s needs. Importantly, it prevents individuals from enjoying their rights. Negative rhetoric and restrictive laws also have impact on investments... Considering all of the above, we urge the politicians to refrain from using accusatory and labelling rhetoric.’

Andras Lukacs, president of T&E’s Hungarian member the Clean Air Action Group (Levegő Munkacsoport), said: ‘Environmental NGOs often campaign against developments that are environmentally harmful and economically questionable, many of them characterised by corrupt practices. Alongside the accusatory rhetoric, the government has withdrawn funding for NGOs, denied them representation on several national bodies, and made it much more difficult to make their voices heard in the media and other forums.’

Orbán’s government previously clashed with civil society in 2014 when police raided three NGOs partially funded by Norway grants. Some organisations had their tax numbers frozen, effectively crippling their ability to function.

The lack of the necessary conditions for NGOs to be involved in these processes contributes to the improper and inefficient use of EU funds in Hungary,’ Lukacs added. The European code of conduct on partnership in the European Structural and Investment Funds requires governments of the member states to cooperate with ‘bodies representing civil society at national, regional and local levels’, and specifically mentions working with ‘non-governmental organisations’ to strengthen the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of any grants’.