In the run-up of the Parliamentary Elections in Hungary, Anna Simai, Head of Communications at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (Budapest, Hungary), reflects on suggested restrictions to the legislation for Hungarian NGOs:

It started in 2010, when FIDESZ, the Hungarian right-wing party, won a comfortable two-thirds majority in parliamentary elections. Since then, the governing party has systematically undermined the rule of law in Hungary, seriously disrupting the system of checks and balances. It started with the adoption of a new constitution without opposition consent, continued with the widely criticised media regulation and further legislative steps weakening independent institutions (e.g. the Constitutional Court, the judiciary, and the Ombudsman system), and violating human rights (e.g. the right to fair trial). These steps were accompanied by the early removal of leaders of independent institutions and the “court packing” of the Constitutional Court. The governing majority adopted several rules, which were not in compliance with democratic values and international standards, thus were sharply criticised by e.g. institutions of the European Union and of the Council of Europe.
In the course of 2013, as a further step in the process aimed at establishing an “illiberal state“, the govermnt of the Prime Minister Orbán initiated a series of attacks against Hungarian NGOs designed to discredit and silence civil society organisations that are trying to hold the government accountable to its obligations concerning anti-corruption, environmental protection, fundamental rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
These attacks involved condemning public statements by high-ranking state officials (including the PM himself) alleging that some NGOs are closely linked to political parties and/or serve “foreign interests”; an illegitimate state audit into the use of the EEA/Norway Grants NGO Fund (Ökotárs); criminal procedures launched against members of the consortium of NGOs distributing the EEA/Norway Grants NGO Fund, and a police raid of their offices. Even though by the beginning of 2016, the official proceedings had ceased or been terminated without any criminal charge brought, critical and threatening statements from members of the government and the governing parties against human rights and watchdog NGOs continued.
The Hungarian government’s tough stance against NGOs persisted in 2017, this time primarily targeting NGOs supported by foreign donors – such as the Open Society Foundations or even the European Commission. As a result, in April 2017, MPs from the governing party submitted a Bill on Transparency of Organisations Receiving Foreign Funds (the so-called “Lex NGO”) to the Hungarian Parliament. In spite of domestic objections, public protests, and severe concerns voiced by several international stakeholders, the bill was adopted by the Parliament and entered into force in June 2017.
The Lex NGO states that organisations receiving foreign funds over a yearly threshold of min. EUR 23,000 have to register at court on a separate list, to label themselves as ‘foreign-funded’ on their website as well as in all their publications or – in case of non-compliance – face serious sanctions. Over 230 NGOs protested, as the law interferes with the freedom of expression of the organisations, affects their right to good reputation, violates the right to privacy and personal data protection as well as freedom of association and the general prohibition of discrimination in relation to the freedom of association, and introduces unjustified and disproportionate restrictions to the free movement of capital. The European Commission launched infringement procedures over the law and sued Hungary at the European Court of Justice in February 2018.
However, the attack on civil society did not end here. On 13 February 2018, the Hungarian government submitted to Parliament a new proposal, which the government branded the “Stop Soros” package. The package consists of three bills that target civil society organisations working on migration.
This proposal, designed to starve and strangle certain NGOs, came amidst a wider effort to stigmatise specific individuals and non-governmental organisations and has been presented as a bid to ‘stop migration’, to ‘strengthen the protection of borders’, and to ‘protect Hungary’s national security interests’. The proposed measures would subject a number of areas key to the functioning of civic life in Hungary to government authorisation. They not only target those, who engage in ‘supporting or funding migration’, but open the door to further arbitrary and politically motivated measures against civil society and freedom of expression in Hungary.
First, according to the proposed legislation, organisations carrying out activities in the field of migration will have to apply for a license from the Minister of Interior to continue performing their work. The licensing process would include a full tax investigation and security clearance by security services. Failure to apply for a license would trigger legal proceedings against the organisation that could ultimately result in dissolution by a court. Should the minister refuse the license, the organisation would not have an effective court remedy to challenge the decision and would need to put its activities on hold for a year until they could re-apply for the license.
Second, licensed groups would be required to pay 25% tax on any foreign funding or face a fine of 50% of their foreign funding.
Third, the proposal would give the Minister of Interior authority to impose a ban, on national security grounds, on the movement of both Hungarian and foreign nationals involved in refugee assistance in border areas. Foreign nationals could be excluded from the entire territory of Hungary on these grounds.
The bills are potentially lethal blows to civil society in Hungary: their novelty is that the threat is now existential and also targets individuals. Should the proposals be adopted by the Parliament, they will cause grave and irreparable damage to Hungarian civil society. By the end of 2018, a number of NGOs would have been unable to function or carry out core work, due to the direct and imminent threats to their mission.
The Hungarian Parliament has postponed the vote on this package until after elections on 8 April. This, however, did not stop members of the government, including the prime minister, to continue and intensify their verbal attacks against NGOs, particularly those working on migration and receiving funds from the Open Society Foundations.
What’s next? Hungarians will vote for their next Parliament on 8 April 2018. The outcome will be very important for the country and – last but not least – for the future of civil society in Hungary.