Last fall, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) adopted a new policy to help re-establish an environment for government and civil society collaboration, safeguarding the Open Government Declaration and to mitigate reputational risks to OGP. Today, members of Hungarian civil society, including representatives of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Transparency International Hungary and K-Monitor, as well as Sunlight’s international policy manager, a former employee of K-Monitor, called on the OGP Steering Committee to take action under the new policy and launch a thorough investigation into the situation in Hungary, with a special attention to the deterioration of the space for civil society.
In the past few years, the rule of law, democracy, pluralism, human rights and the role of independent institutions as checks and balances on political power have been systematically undermined in Hungary. Particularly troublesome from the perspective of the OGP are the government’s actions to reduce the space for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to work independently, voice critiques and receive funding from international sources. Since the summer of 2013, Hungarian government officials have been engaging in a smear campaign against some of the country’s independent NGOs, and many of these allegations have been directed at the very transparency and human rights groups which have been most actively engaged in the OGP process in the country.
Over time, the allegations have been followed by more direct action on the part of the government. A criminal investigation has been initiated based on a governmental audit intoNorwegian Fund beneficiary NGOs, including HCLU, K-Monitor, Transparency International Hungary and many more. A police raid in September 2014 against two of the NGOs running the NGO Fund involved dozens of riot police, seemingly intended to create a spectacle and to intimidate. In a move that puts their very existence at risk, the tax identification of the four organizations which run the NGO Fund were also suspended in 2014. This is a clear sign that the Hungarian government is ready to administratively hinder the operation of civil society groups with a critical approach to its performance.
Hungarian NGOs which participated in the development of the country’s OGP Action Plan were very critical of the process, claiming that no real consultation or meaningful discussion took place between the government and civil society. Among other things, a coalition of civil society organizations has called on the government to review the laws which restrict access to information and transparency, but the Hungarian government has so far never responded to these requests.
Instead, the government’s newly adopted anti-corruption action plan envisions the obligation of NGO leaders to declare their private assets. Moreover, the government, in its latest attempt to restrict freedom of information, adopted a bill that obliges the refund of costs triggered by the servicing of public interest information requests. Setting new barriers to accessing public data restricts the degree to which this fundamental right can be enjoyed and further hinders civil society in fulfilling its watchdog role.
In addition to complaints from Hungarian civil society, hundreds of leading national and international civil society organisations from around the world have expressed publicly their concerns about the targeting of NGOs and have called on the Hungarian government to stop. A high-profile example of this was when U.S. President Barack Obama highlighted Hungary as a country where “endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society.”
The attacks on civil society and the failure of the government to consult properly in relation to OGP processes have now reached a breaking point, to an extent that the ability of the country to engage in a meaningful way in the OGP process became questionable. In light of this, Hungarian civil society members asked the OGP Steering Committee to take action under the OGP response policy to help re-establish the necessary space for civil society actors to play their democratic role, including by contributing to the development and monitoring the implementation of Hungary’s OGP Action Plans.
The letter outlines a series of recommendations, which includes steps to restore an environment in which civil society’s criticism is taken into account by government, and a meaningful dialogue between state organs and non-governmental groups is possible, as well as stopping the harassment of watchdog NGOs.
The trend on the part of the Hungarian government to increasingly view members of civil society which are critical of it as its enemies has been documented in both the IRM report on Hungary and assessments conducted by independent domestic watchdog organizations.