"Thank you for the invitation and opportunity to speak at this hearing. I would like to focus on the situation of freedom of expression and information in Hungarian. The Charter of Fundamental Rights enshrines the freedoms of expression and information into EU law. It also states that freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected.
Firstly, I will speak about the freedom of the media in Hungary. Two main tendencies can be identified that determine its freedom and pluralism. The tendencies are 1. restructuring of the media market and 2. manipulation of revenue distribution. The target of these are mostly media enterprises and not individual news pieces thus interfering with the supply of contents rather than individual contents. This is characterized as soft censorship by a media think thank, Mérték. As for the tendency regarding the restructuring the media market, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe noted in 2014 after the general elections that few media outlets can be considered independent. Since then the concentration of media outlets owned by businessman with close ties to the governing party has increased. The biggest international attention followed the case of Népszabadság, while in 2015 TV2, commercial media channel was bought by Andy Vajna, who holds a position in the government. Also in 2015, Origo.hu online news portal with significant readership was bought by businessman also having close ties to the government. In 2016, Népszabadság a 60-year-old, independent daily was closed down suddenly, the employees’ contracts suspended, the online archive made unavailable. This was later deemed unlawful by a court, however, the newspaper was by that time officially shut down. The move was explained by economic reasons by the then-owner Mediaworks Zrt.. Mediaworks eventually sold 100 % of its shares to Optimus Press Zrt. which reportedly also has links to the closest circles of the governing party. Other print media outlets were also sold to owners with political connections to the governing party, like the company printing regional newspapers and other political magazines. As for the second tendency, I’d like to highlights the Council of Europe Parliamentary assembly recommendations which require the state subsidies to be granted to media in a fair and neutral manner. According to the Mérték think tank we can detect the unequal distribution of state advertising to government friendly media which have a distorting effect on the media market. “Following the economic crisis of 2008, the advertising market dropped by 20%. The adoption of the media law in late 2010 led to an unpredictable regulatory environment. Many foreign investors sold their Hungarian holdings, and several of them left the region altogether. In Hungary, their place was typically taken by domestic investors with political connections and close ties to the governing party. This has completely reshaped not only media ownership structures in Hungary, but in fact the entire Hungarian public sphere.
These tendencies are coupled with formal restrictions on the reporting by journalists. For instance, in 2015 journalists were denied access to refugee camps preventing them from reporting, in 2016 several journalist and even complete media outlets were banned from the Parliament by the Speaker. The reasons regard attempting to record interviews or shooting in restricted areas. Some of these bans were lifted since then.
The second theme I’d like to highlight concerns the situation of active citizens in general who face hurdles when trying to access public data or the reports about local authorities using legal means and abuse their power to respond to criticism. Critics face lawsuits, loose their employment and often have to litigate accusations of slander, libel, or defamation. The goal of legal pressure is to silence criticism: the majority of people can be discouraged from forming opinions or revealing corruption if they may be obliged to pay hundreds of thousands of forints in compensation. The UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders concluded at the end of its country visit that: “Defamation remains a criminal offence in Hungary and it is a charge regularly brought against investigative journalists, defenders and watchdog organizations, in combination with related offences, such as hooliganism.” The amendment of the Freedom of Information Act in 2015 have also rendered access more difficult. The law made it possible for data owners to reject public data requests on the grounds that the information serves as the basis of a decision that might never be passed, it also barred access to expensive, commissioned studies citing copyright. It made it possible for the controllers to ask for payment for not only copying services and posting, but also for processing the request itself, if they consider that it would take too much up of their time. The regulation: people and organizations demanding information that leads over four hours of workload are faced with a fee of maximum 4400 HUF/hour, otherwise the information remains hidden. Anonymous requests are also not a possibility anymore. In 2016, the restriction on this freedom were continued by drawing state owned enterprises out of the obligation to publish public data through the adoption of sectorial laws.
When speaking about freedom of expression, the closing space phenomenon for independent NGOs must be addressed as well. The UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders conducted a country visit in early 2016 and its recommendations will be presented in three days. He noted some concerns regarding the situation of human rights defenders in Hungary. The rapporteur concludes that the environment for human rights defenders is not a conducive one and cautions against overregulation.
The stigmatization begun in 2013. It was taken to the next level at the end of 2016, MP Szilárd Németh, Vice President of the Fidesz and of the Parliament’s National Security Committee announced in an interview that he requested the National Security Committee and the national security services to inspect the organizations “cooperating with the Soros-network”. The MP stated that he identified 22 such organizations, and claimed that these organizations openly violate Hungarian and European laws, and participate in politics unlawfully, with “black money”. No further report was made public and its worth to note that the Hungarian surveillance legislation was found violating the European Human Rights Convention by the European Court of Human Rights. As potential subjects of surveillance, the applicants of Szabó and Vissy v. Hungary, claimed that their rights to privacy are violated if the interception is not accompanied by a control mechanism that is independent from the government and surveillance-gathering parties.
A new impetus was given to the process of stigmatizing independent civil organizations when the legislative agenda of the Parliament for 2017 spring was submitted to the Parliament. This foresees the amendment of the law on civil organizations and the scope of those obliged to submit a declaration of assets. The document refers to the National Anti-Corruption Program and a related Government resolution from 2015, which stated that in order to ensure the transparent operation of NGOs, the regulation on NGOs and the possibilities of widening the scope of those obliged to submit a declaration of assets should be examined.
Until now, no legislative proposal was made public, instead there are new and new ideas floated weekly by various government officials about ways to increase NGO transparency. The ideas vary between simply stigmatizing NGOs and proposing the disclosure of information and data already available in our annual reports. The statements are coming from high ranking government officials, including even the Prime Minister who addressed the issue in his state of the nation speech. The statements usually include three types of claims: being foreign funded, conducting political activities and not being transparent about the donors. Furthermore, these organizations are often also linked to influencing the migration crisis.
The proposals about increasing transparency shall also be viewed in comparison with the Hungarian government’s corruption track record. It is described by the Freedom House: “Compared to the period before 2010, Hungary now clearly shows characteristics of “reverse state capture,” where politics and a strong state set up corruption networks and use laws to reward friendly oligarchs. While the government increased the prosecution’s capacity for corruption-related cases and made efforts to constrain low-level, everyday corruption, high-level corruption has become increasingly centralized and an organic part of the regime’s functioning.”
Moreover, these pushes for more NGO transparency should not mislead; all of these proposals are wrapped in a rhetoric that unveils their real purpose: to stigmatize or even get rid of those organizations that campaign for a just society and responsible, transparent government. In early January, the governing party’s vice president, Németh Szilárd declared that those organizations with links to Soros shall be swept out from the country. The rhetoric and the tactics can be familiar from Israel or Russia. The UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders also notes to be concerned about the continued stigmatization of human rights defenders and about the chilling effect of the inflammatory language used by senior government officials on the public perception of the value of civil society. The intimidation campaign and the parts we heard about the proposed legislation are problematic from the perspective of disrespecting European Union values. Freedom of expression is only one, the other concerns the foreign funding element of the proposals. The way foreign will be defined concerns the freedom of capital over border, one of the fundamental freedoms of the Union. Foreign can include not only fund from the European Union but other European countries.
It was reported on 21 February 2017 by the media that at the parliamentary group meeting of Fidesz the NGOs supported by the Open Society Foundations and specifically the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, and Transparency International Hungary were named as the target group of the envisaged Bill on the foreign funding of NGOs. According to sources, the threshold for the sum of support from abroad to be reported is still to be established, and it seems that a new registry category, the “organization supported from abroad” will be introduced for those NGOs whose foreign funding exceeds a certain sum or proportion. Sources also claimed that it was voiced at the meeting that the real aim of these steps is to place the data acquired into the “political communication space”.
According to the work plan of the Government the internal consultation about the new law starts tomorrow."
A longer version of the timeline of governmental attacks against the Hungarian NGO sector is available.