The Hungarian parliament is to adapt a law based on the Russian and Israeli model, which aims to accuse and stigmatise NGOs operating independently from the Hungarian government, alleging that they represent foreign interests. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) – as one of the targets of the proposed legalisation -, a legal aid organisation working on ensuring political rights and freedoms - wishes to communicate the following to the public.
What is the main problem with this proposal?
There is no need for it.
Most of all, there is absolutely no need for this new legalisation. While the transparency of funding of NGOs is indeed important, current laws already ensure transparency. Our arguments in favour of transparency have been listed in 2015.
The bill feigns to strengthen transparency, but in fact, it is seeking information already made public. The compilation of financial reports are mandatory for NGOs and are available for public access. Anyone can access information on the sources and funded activities these organisations received and whether these resources were granted abroad.
It silences active citizens.
The proposed law does not actually serve to increase transparency, but is another attempt by the government to silence public opinion on public matters. Rather than argue with its critics, the government wishes to abolish debate. The proposal is another step towards discouraging citizens from participating in public matters and public affairs.
It stigmatises NGOs.
The government is keen to achieve this goal by taking petty revenge on NGOs which have raised their voices against the government’s anti-democratic, corrupt legalisations and violations of human rights. The government wants to stigmatise non-governmental independent organisations by declaring that they serve foreign, instead of community goals. It obligates these independent organizations to wear this badge of dishonour with the aim of discrediting their efforts. Failing to do so, NGOs risk termination by the prosecutor.
The bill – which was handed in without any consultation with the public or the affected NGOs – is devastating. It will have a chilling effect on independent opinions on the government’s affairs and it hands the government a tool to suppress counter opinions.
The HCLU, with all its ability and strength, will fight the proposal, which undermines freedom of expression, infringes the protection of reputation, harms the privacy of private donors, and goes against non-discrimination. We will fight not only for ourselves, but primarily for the protection of the whole of civil society.
Who is affected by the law?
All foundations and associations carrying out any activities with the exception of sports or religious associations, political parties, trade unions, mutual insurance associations, public foundations or (political) party foundations. Associations and foundations will be affected, if they receive - individually or cumulatively - 25.000 USD or more from abroad. Any funding received from outside of Hungary is considered to be foreign source. Funds from the European Union or the Visegrad Fund also constitute as foreign funding. Funding from the European Union is not to be considered foreign in case it is granted through a Hungarian public body. Funding received directly from the EU is considered to be foreign.
What do the affected associations and foundations have to do?
The law established several liabilities:
- NGOs which receive 25.000 USD or more funding from a foreign source are obligated to make a declaration within 15 days to the court the NGO is registered with. From that point on, the NGOs are registered as ‘foreign-supported organisations’;
- organizations must annually report on the names, countries and cities of foreign supporters, even if they are private individuals, and the report has to include the amount of their funding as well;
- the Civil Information Portal will register these organisations as ‘foreign-supported organisations’ and moreover, will obligate these organisations to brand themselves as such on their websites, press and other public communications as well.
Why is it a problem if an organisation has to declare it is supported from abroad?
The legalisation is part of the communication crusade, which suggests that organisations which receive foreign funding are conducting activities which oppose the interests of Hungary. The impact of this campaign can already be felt: there are organisations which do not dare to cooperate with us, and there may be people who do not dare to seek legal aid from us. As a result, these people are indirectly denied the opportunity of adequate help and the government can effectively avoid and block organisations which represent or highlight the problems of citizens. An example: the HCLU started to deal with the case of hospital infections due to numerous complaints submitted to our offices. Using our legal knowledge, we submit these complaints to the responsible institutions to ensure that a solution for this extensive patients’ rights problem is solved.
What happens with the organisation which fails to comply with any of the obligations?
First, the prosecutor summons the organisation to comply and if this request is unsuccessful, the prosecutor reiterates and again summons the organisation. If this second formal request is also unsuccessful, the organisation may be fined with up to 3.000 USD. If the organisation, even after the imposition of fines, will not meet the requirements of the law, the organization may be terminated and will be eliminated from the court register in a simplified invalidity proceeding.
What preceded this legalisation?
Since 2013, the Hungarian government has been engaged in war against NGOs operating independently. The government is not alone in the world: other governments adopted such laws in other countries as part of the long process of autocracy. The law was preceded by several smear campaigns and in the case of Norway Grants - which were handled by an independent NGO - administrative and criminal procedures have been launched against civilians. The conclusion, without exception, was that the NGOs in question have not committed any offence. It is also important to note that the government propaganda in recent years has instilled a negative meaning to the word ‘foreign’ meaning ‘alien from the Hungarian nation’ (i.e. must have other interests than the interests of Hungarians).
Where do they have similar legalisations in the world?
Similar laws have been adopted in Israel and Russia. Similarly, in these countries the adoption of these legalisations were preceded by a long communication campaign. However, while in Israel only grants from foreign governments have to be declared, in Russia, the law only applies to organisations engaged in political activities. In Russia NGOs are registered by the Ministry of Justice and this obligation of NGOs cannot be avoided. As a result of the laws, one of the major Russian civil rights organisations, Agora, was recently abolished.
translated by: Fehertavi Szonja
lectored by: Andul