Silencing civil society in Hungary: How to fight back?

The formal and informal crackdown on civil society is not news in many regions, but we have yet to find a solution, as one of the most recent examples shows. That example is in Hungary, a country that joined the European Union in 2004 and is currently led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing populist government. Following the Russian and Israeli model, the government has introduced a “foreign agents law” to stigmatise and discredit civil society organisations that are critical of the government. Hungary is now under the scrutiny of the EU institutions.

The Hungarian illiberal democracy and the role of civil society

To better understand the current situation, we have to go back to 2010, when the newly elected government introduced measures to systematically undermine the rule of law, democracy, media pluralism, human rights, and independent institutions such as the judiciary. The never-ending list has had several low points since then: replacing the Constitution with a new Fundamental law that is breaching the right to self-determination and eliminates checks and balances; a media law that had a serious chilling effect on the press; restricting the act on freedom of information; prematurely terminating the mandate of the data protection commissioner; setting up a government-leaning data protection and freedom of information authority; increasing the number of judges on the Constitutional Court and filling the bench with politically loyal appointees; and much more. This process has led to a system Orbán himself call the “illiberal state” in the heart of the European Union.

During 2013, without facing significant opposition, Hungarian government officials identified the necessary “enemy” and engaged in a smear campaign against critical and independent NGOs. It has been common to link the funding of these civil society organisations with the alleged leftist political interests of George Soros, the Hungarian born billionaire philanthropist.

This discreditation and labelling of NGOs as “foreign agents”, only via public statements in the beginning, was quickly followed by more tangible actions, such as criminal and administrative investigations ordered by the prime minister himself on a secretive and questionable legal basis. Then there were the formal and informal measures against NGOs, which included a police raid in September 2014. The raid involved dozens of riot police, and was seemingly intended to create a spectacle and to intimidate, as the NGOs under attack reported.

The refugee crisis has diverted the government’s attention from civil society, and government actions have included unlawful and inhumane treatment and procedures against migrants and refugees, a hatred campaign that cost more than the Brexit Leave and Remain campaign together, and the spread of propaganda through public media that aligns with Russia’s interests to divide Europe.

Against all odds, a few well established NGOs such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee have managed to push back successfully on the government’s attempt to silence them, and they have pushed back successfully against human rights violations even as they fight for their own existence. In late 2016 and early 2017, the government gained new energy in its fight against human rights defenders. The Hungarian government made statements to force non-government organisation leaders to declare their personal assets in the same way that MPs and public officials do. Ironically, these public officials more often than not fail to comply with that obligation and face no sanctions or political consequences when they do.

As Kapronczay Stefania, the executive director of the HCLU, told The Guardian, “If these administrative requirements have the purpose of steering us away from our true mission, that’s a problem. It’s a trend we see around the world that repressive governments apply against organisations like ours, for example in Russia or Egypt. If we have to submit a financial report every three or six months, we don’t have the capacity to deal with it. At the same time, the information will be used by the government to defame civil society organisations and show that they are funded from abroad.”

Foreign agents undercover

The Hungarian government did not stop at the asset-declaration plans in its abuse of transparency arguments. Public and party officials of Fidesz have engaged with renewed energy in a battle against any form of dissent in Hungary, accusing George Soros-linked organisations of shadowy influence on Hungarian and global politics. As a first step, a higher education law was swept through the Parliament, despite a series of protests by tens of thousands of people, to undermine the operation of the Central European University, founded by George Soros in 1991.

Parallel to this, the crackdown on civil society was taken to the next level, namely to introduce a bill called “Law on the Transparency of Organisations Receiving Support from Abroad”. In the name of combatting money laundering and terrorist financing, the proposed law labels certain NGOs as foreign agents through the following measures:

If an NGO receives funding over EUR 23,000 per year from outside Hungary, it must register as an “organisation receiving support from abroad”; display this label on its website and publications; and report the personal details of each donor. Failure to comply with these rules can lead to fines, and ultimately, dissolution of the organisation. (You can find a detailed legal analysis by the Civil Liberties Union for Europe here and by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union here.)

In addition to violating EU law, these measures would have dramatic consequences for civil society, openness, and what’s left of democracy in Hungary. The proposed law would not only undermine the credibility of these organisations by depicting them as serving foreign interests but would also discourage donors who do not want their personal information to be disclosed to the Hungarian government. The story can only go to one direction from here, as we have learned from other countries. The Russian example shows that the registry can also serve as a basis for future government actions against these organisations including direct or indirect measures that lead to the closure of targeted NGOs.

Europe’s response

These latest moves of the Hungarian government, including a biased national consultation campaign called “Stop Brussels”, finally triggered the European Commission to take action. On April 26, the Commission started the legal steps to conduct an infringement procedure against Hungary for violating EU law, including the Charter for Fundamental Rights.

On the same day the European Parliament held a discussion in a plenary session in the presence of Prime Minister Orbán to debate the Hungarian situation, including the law against the Central European University, the NGO bill, the public consultation and the handling of the refugee crisis. The European Parliament will vote on a resolution during the first plenary session of the month of May to conclude the debate (between May 15-18). Access Now has signed the civil society petition that calls on the European Parliament “to adopt a resolution urging the Hungarian government to withdraw the bill on NGOs”.

The coalition of hundreds of civil society organisations also points out the need “to adopt a consistent and systematic monitoring of the state of fundamental rights and democratic values in EU member states in a period when these rights are being undermined by several governments. This can only be achieved through an inclusive and transparent process and with the full involvement of civil society organisations and the citizens they represent”.

There are lots of open questions left for European decision makers. First, the Commission chose targeted actions against Hungary as opposed to applying broader sanctions via the rule of law framework or by restricting EU funding available to Hungary. Second, Fidesz, the governing party in Hungary, is part of the conservative group, the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. The EPP is responsible for having Orbán’s back so far but some parliamentarians have called for the expulsion of Fidesz from the group. Finally, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has called on Hungary to suspend the parliamentary debate on the draft NGO law.

We must not forget that the actions of the Hungarian government, including the legal changes to limit human rights and democratic institutions and the deterioration of civic space, are happening in an EU member state. NGO leaders have not been imprisoned or killed in Hungary under this regime yet, but other measures are being taken to silence them. We must make sure that people and decision makers hear the wake-up call and stand up for independent civil society which is necessary for a functioning democracy.

If you’d like to support the independence of civil society in Hungary, you can follow and donate to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, K-Monitor, and many others.  Access Now focuses more broadly on digital rights, supporting civil society globally as part of our effort to defend at-risk users and keep the internet free, open, and secure. You can support our work by donating here.


Image credit: Photo of protests in Budapest published by