Hungary: NGO law a vicious and calculated assault on civil society

June 14, 2017 – The passing of a law stigmatizing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive foreign funding is the latest in an escalating crackdown on critical voices and will hamper critically important work by civil society groups, said Amnesty international.

The Law on the transparency of organizations funded from abroad will force NGOs receiving more than 24,000 EUR direct or indirect funding from abroad to re-register as “civic organization funded from abroad” and to put this pejorative label on every publication.

“Threadbare attempts to disguise this law as being necessary to protect national security cannot hide its real purpose: to stigmatize, discredit and intimidate critical NGOs and hamper their vital work,” said said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe.

“This latest assault on civil society is aimed at silencing critical voices within the country, has ominous echoes of Russian’s draconian ‘foreign agents’ law, and is a dark day for Hungary.”

The authorities have attempted to justify the law as a bid to fight against money laundering and international terrorism. In reality, the impact of the law will be the targeting of NGOs that carry out functions such as promoting the rule of law, protecting the rights of refugees, migrants and other marginalized groups, and providing social and legal services not sufficiently offered by the state.

The law will introduce selective new requirements for the “transparency” of NGO funding and place unnecessary additional administrative burdens on them. NGOs are already required to publicly report on their foreign funding on an annual basis, and may be audited by authorities at any time. A comprehensive NGO law, adopted in 2011, contains copious requirements, including detailed reporting on funding to ensure the transparency and accountability of NGOs.

The law would likely be discriminatory under EU law and contravene the right to association, including the right to seek, receive and use funding from foreign and international sources. Under the law, organizations failing to comply with these new rules face warnings, fines and ultimately the suspension of their right to operate in Hungary.

By forcing NGOs – including the Amnesty International’s Hungarian section – to label themselves as “foreign funded”, the Hungarian government is seeking to discredit their work and turn people against them. The rationale of the proposal suggests that NGOs funded from abroad may serve “foreign interests” and their funding can contribute to “endangering the sovereignty and national security of Hungary”.

“Prime Minister Orbán not only appears to be deaf to the clamor of opposition within the country and abroad but to revel in it,” said John Dalhuisen.

“This vicious and calculated assault on the rights to freedom of expression and association is a serious miscalculation and contravenes Hungary’s human rights obligations. It must be challenged on all levels – from grassroots organizations in Hungary to the European Union in Brussels.”

Background
The proposals echo Russia’s “foreign agents law” which has seen the reputation of hundreds of credible organizations tarnished, their staff intimidated and their work bogged down by administrative requirements. Since the Russian law entered into force in 2012, it has effectively made the legal and reputational risks of foreign funding too great for many NGOs. Nearly 30 organizations have closed since its adoption.

The law was passed with 130 votes for, 44 votes against and 24 abstentions.

www.amnesty.org