Since its re-election, the Hungarian government launched a campaign attacking the credibility of Hungarian NGOs and is striving to gain control over their funding distributed independently from the government. We believe that a dynamic and independent civil society plays a fundamental role in a democratic society, as it is one of the key checks and balances to governing power. As demonstrated by Putin’s Russia, the harassment of the civil sector could easily lead to the criminalization of NGOs and could effectively hinder their work. We stand in solidarity with the Hungarian NGOs and call on the Hungarian and all other governments to refrain from harassing civil society!
After widespread international and national criticism regarding the weakening of independent institutions, the dismantling of the framework of parliamentarianism in Hungary, the beginning of the second term of Orban’s government in 2014 gave rise to even more challenges: members of the government started questioning the credibility and hindering the independent financing of autonomous civil organizations.
The Norway Financial Mechanism (Norway Grants) is part of an agreement between the EU and Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein about funding projects in less-developed European economies. The Hungarian government launched its attack against the Norwegian Civic Fund (NCTA) at the beginning of April, only a day after its massive re-election victory. The NCTA constitutes only a small portion of the Norway Grants, which is distributed by a consortium of four Hungarian foundations, which had previously administered the grants with great success. The accusation made by the government is that through the four foundations, Norway is trying to influence Hungarian politics. Norway firmly denied the accusations.
When the Norwegian government rejected the charges, the Hungarian government sent agents of the Government Control Office (KEHI) to audit the Fund’s administering organizations. The government has led an escalating campaign accusing the four NGOs of political meddling. It said KEHI would audit Okotars, the consortium leader NGO, but sent KEHI agents to two other partner organizations as well. The foundations were threatened with the suspension of their tax number if refused cooperation. The legal basis of the audit is disputed by the administering organizations of the consortium.
In the past years, NGOs, especially those critical of or countering the ideology of the government (transparency and human rights groups) were subjected to defamatory attempts by the government, or media closely linked to the government. On May 30, 2014, an article was published stating that the government blacklisted independent Hungarian civil organizations that have benefitted from the Norwegian Civic Fund (NCTA) on the basis of their alleged political affiliation. K-Monitor was on the list, as one of the beneficiaries of the NCTA grant. In an emailed statement to Reuters on this day, the government said it had no intention of fighting individual NGOs, but it repeated the charges that the grants sought to exert political influence.
As a consequence of the government’s reluctance to take into account the opinion of the civil society, civil organizations’ opportunities for legal advocacy have become scarce. Also, media publications are often constrained to exercise self-censorship due to regulations of a 2011 media law curtailing the freedom of speech and judicial practices would hold them back from publishing articles criticizing the government. All these steps have started to make Hungary resemble Putin’s Russia, where, with the silencing of the last free voices, all defenses of the democratic state are being demolished.
The scandal sparked by the Hungarian government over the Norwegian funding of local NGOs has escalated to the extent that groups advocating environmental and human rights concerns and anti-corruption are being targeted by the authorities. The only tangible reason to be found is that the Hungarian government doesn’t agree with funding being distributed to organizations, which they do not approve of.
As things stand, the organizations that are currently or were in the past the beneficiaries of the Norwegian civil grant are prone to face investigations from the authorities, with the declared intent to decide whether they were legitimate recipients of the Norwegian tax-payers’ money, or whether they were handpicked to represent niche political interests that go against the will of the Hungarian majority.
According to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, another blacklisted NGO: These are steps in a series of government actions aiming to silence people, from ordinary citizens to the press to civil society, and prevent them from voicing any criticism against the government. An examination of government actions since 2010 shows that the weakening of independent institutions, the dismantling of the framework of parliamentarianism and the trivialization of opposition voices already started during the previous government cycle (which nonetheless was the same party). Such measures include the Media Law, the curtailing of the Constitutional Court’s authority, the elimination of the institution of the independent Data Protection Ombudsman, the transformation of the election system and the means of approval and contents of the Fundamental Law.
As part of the government’s silencing efforts of independent voices, the editor-in-chief of one of the largest Hungarian online news sites, Origo.hu, was forced unexpectedly to leave his job on June 2. On the last week of May, the news site published a series on János Lázár, Secretary of State for the Prime Minister’s Office, noting that his recent spending of 6.500 EUR from public funds on travel expenses was presumably unjustified. In response, János Lázár exercised visible pressure on the news portal. It is probably due to this incident that the editor-in-chief of Origo.hu, who until then resisted the political pressure exercised by the publishing company, was forced to quit yesterday. The editorial board of Origo.hu expressed its disagreement with dismissing the editor-in-chief and considers the conditions for continuing its work insecure. Since June 2, a number of staff members quit their jobs. The management of Origo.hu denied the accusations about political pressure.
Recommended articles, statements: