CIVICUS speaks to Anita Koncsik of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) on the recent Bill on transparency of organisations receiving foreign funding. Anita also speaks on the recent massive protests in the country and the general operating environment for civil society. For over two decades, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union has been active in protecting the rights of citizens against undue interference by those in position of public power.
1. What are the main concerns of civil society over the draft bill “on transparency of organisations receiving foreign funding” that was presented to the Hungarian Parliament on 7 April?
First and foremost, the Bill is not necessary at all. NGOs are complying with already existing comprehensive transparency requirements. Act CLXXV of 2011 on the Freedom of Association, on the Non-profit Status and on the Operation and Support of Civil Organizations also known as the Civil Act already regulates which financial statements have to be presented for meeting transparency standards. For example ourselves as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union we have to create 4 annual reports - including one focusing on donations. While we believe that accountability in both the governmental and non-governmental sphere is important, the new regulation clearly serves other interests. That is the reason why it is embedded into the smear campaign of the government that was initiated 4 years ago against NGOs that dare to take a critical stance against its measures. The very existence of the Bill is an attempt to silence or threaten critical voices. It therefore violates freedom of expression, good reputations and it serves to stigmatise NGOs (therefore is discriminative) and infringes on the privacy of donors as well.
2. The government says the law is necessary to guard against money laundering and terrorism. How is civil society responding to these concerns and what accountability mechanisms are in place?
This is a hypocritical argument coming from a government that has allowed several grey zones for financial maneuvers, like stability savings account (which is explicitly state supported money laundering) or the concept of settlement bonds (invented by a minister of the government who himself is known to channel public resources to unidentified offshore brokers without any legitimate reason at all). But apart from the government’s deflective argumentations, there are already accountability mechanisms in place anchored in the aforementioned Civil Act. NGOs that do not receive Hungarian public funds (like HCLU) have to publish an annual financial report, a non-profit report (as an annex to the report deposited at the registering court), and a report on donations.
Anti-money laundering measures affect mostly the private financial sector in Hungary and these measures are usually the subject of criticism from both of Hungarian and international experts for lacking proper risk assessment of sufficient depth with regard to potential threats, vulnerabilities and their consequences in general. According to the expert group MONEYVAL of Council of Europe, Hungary should conduct a formal review of the entire non-profit organisation (NPO) sector in order to identify NPOs that could potentially pose a higher risk of financing terrorism. But this recommendation puts emphasis on a substantiated review of the sector and if the government concludes that the existing frameworks and measures are not good enough to protect the sector, the newly adopted laws/measures must be proportionate and targeted (but not tailored to target NGOs that criticise government). We are not aware of the occurrence of any such review. The new Bill clearly does not serve anti-money laundering purposes. In addition, if the regulation enters into force, MONEYVAL still can consider the aforementioned recommendation unfulfilled - based on overregulation and discrimination - alongside with other recommendations that the government is not so eager to address such as rectifying shortcomings of the mechanism for verifying the information on beneficial owners of financial institutions. Therefore meeting international standards is not the motive behind the legislation.
3. What other motivations does civil society believe lie behind the government’s actions?
This proposal clearly fits into the hostile anti-NGO campaign that was initiated 4 years ago, during which Prime Minister Viktor Orbán denounced human rights NGOs as agents of foreign political interests, endorsed the idea of “illiberal state” and rhetorical attacks were accompanied by a series of administrative checks and criminal investigations. Eventually, all investigations were dropped and none yielded any finding of wrongdoing or irregularities, but - in 2016, after a two and a half year long legal procedure - HCLU shed light on the fact that the government control investigations were ordered by the Prime Minister himself which proves the pure political nature of the audits.
In the meantime, government propaganda started to portray NGOs that criticise it as a national security risk. MP Szilárd Németh, vice president of the Fidesz and of the Parliament’s National Security Committee announced in September of 2016 in an interview that he requested the national security services to inspect organisations “cooperating with the Soros-network”. The MP stated that he had identified 22 such organisations, and claimed that these organisations openly violate Hungarian and European laws, and participate in politics unlawfully with “black money”. It must be noted that in Hungary secret services can gather information without a judicial warrant when it is related to national security risks, therefore safeguards and independent oversight of the covert information-gathering is missing, which contradicts international law of course.
After a short break, in December 2016, Prime Minister Orbán announced that in 2017, states would aim to “drive out” from their countries George Soros and also the organisations he supports.
A month later, Fidesz Vice President Szilárd Németh, one of the MP’s who is currently submitting the Bill, said: “The Soros empire’s fake civil organisations are maintained so that global capital and the world of political correctness can be imposed on national governments. These organisations have to be rolled back with all available tools, and I think they have to be swept out of here.”
These statements reveal the true aim of the illiberal Hungarian government: the Bill is the latest attempt to stigmatise and silence those who voice critical opinions about public affairs.
4. Can you tell us about recent mass protests that occurred over the possibility of the closure of the Central European University.
The adopted and promulgated Bill aimed clearly at undermining operation of Central European University (CEU) in Hungary. The proposal was amending the Act CCIV of 2011 on National Higher Education enacting new requirements for domestic operation that extend beyond already existing accreditation criteria (and the recognition of foreign accreditation). The purpose of the amendment was to enable politics to intrude into education, making the operation of universities subject to these regulations (currently that covers exclusively CEU) depending on political will. Opponents were protesting against unconstitutional restriction on educational and academic freedom and freedom of research, joined by thousands of Hungarians outraged over the latest anti-EU government propaganda campaign in the form of another “national consultation,” (calling on Hungarians to “stop Brussels”). It also has to be noted that as a reaction to the first protests, the government only accelerated the legislative procedure aiming at prohibiting real political discussion about the amendment. During the mass protest other buzzwords emerged, like protest against the illicit closure of the left-wing broadsheet Népszabadság, restrictions on freedom of expression and fighting propaganda of the FIDESZ media empire (including public television channels) and against social exclusion and xenophobia fueled by the government, etc.
5. Can you describe the overall environment for CSOs in Hungary? Do different CSOs experience different attitudes from the state?
Yes, they do experience different treatment depending on which financial resources they have access to and how critical they dare to be of the government. Besides the blacklisted Soros-network NGOs, there are Hungarian GONGOs, like the Civil Cooperation Forum [Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF)] that is the organiser of pro-government “peace rallies” and participated very actively in the electoral campaign of 2014 on the side of the governing parties. CÖF claims to finance the organisation’s operations exclusively through private donations. It is not clear from their reports, though, who these donors are and CÖF has a proven connection to a FIDESZ party Foundation from which it has received tens of millions of forints. Transparency of such organisation, however, is not an issue according to the government.
Besides, government propaganda created a (false) link between human rights defense and terrorism, since according to the governmental narrative, the refugee phenomenon is the radix malorum of terrorism and there is a vocal group of human rights NGOs that still devote attention to refugee rights and try to help in spite of the current hostile circumstances. These NGOs therefore are face charges of supporting terrorism by increasing the terror threat level of the country.
6. Given the government’s attitude towards civil society, what support can international and regional groups offer to civil society organisations in the country?
Opposing the Bill and the threats to fundamental freedoms and CSOs in Hungary, is crucial right now on both an international and a domestic level. We ask our partner organisations to express their views, and also call on their government representatives to convey these concerns to the representatives of the Hungarian government. Besides moral support and creating a pressure on the government, it is equally important to maintain financial security and independence of these organisations, therefore helping with widening the scope of international fundraising is also appreciated. The international community can be the biggest listed donor of these organisations that could be used against government pro bill arguments.
• The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union monitors legislation, pursues strategic litigation, conducts public education and launches awareness raising media campaigns. It stands by citizens unable to defend themselves, assisting them in protecting their basic rights. Our lawyers provide free legal aid service in about 2 000 cases per year and this number is increasing.
Hungary is rated as obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor