Hungary: Plan to brand NGOs has sombre echoes of Russia’s ‘foreign agents law’

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Hungary that receive foreign funding – even direct European Union support – risk being discredited and undermined by a draft law leaked to the media, said Amnesty International today.

This draft law is reminiscent of Russian’s draconian ‘foreign agents’ law and is an ominous blueprint for the oncoming assault on Hungarian civil society
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International

Proposals in the draft Law on the transparency of organizations funded from abroad would force NGOs receiving more than 24k EUR per year to re-register as “civic organization funded from abroad” and to put this stigmatizing label on every publication.

“This draft law – and the government rhetoric around it – is worryingly reminiscent of Russian’s draconian ‘foreign agents’ law and is an ominous blueprint for the oncoming assault on Hungarian civil society,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe.

“Thinly disguised as an attempt to protect Hungarian interests, this law would have the opposite effect, discrediting and intimidating NGOs and undermining their capacity to protect human rights and provide valuable services to Hungarian people.”

The Hungarian government has tried to justify the law as a bid to fight against money laundering and international terrorism. But this is a flimsy attempt to legitimize the authorities’ real goal of denouncing NGOs that carry out vital work, such as promoting the rule of law, protecting the rights of refugees, migrants and other marginalized groups, and providing social and legal services not offered by the state.

Thinly disguised as an attempt to protect Hungarian interests, this law would have the opposite effect
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International

As it stands, the law would 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 law, adopted by the same government in 2011, contains copious requirements, including detailed reporting on funding to ensure the transparency and accountability of NGOs.

The law would likely breach EU regulations on free movement of capital and could also be discriminatory under EU law, as it only applies to certain types of NGO. Under the draft law, organizations failing to comply with these new rules would face warnings, fines and ultimately the suspension of their right to operate in Hungary.

By forcing NGOs 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”.

This bill has nothing to do with transparency and everything to do with obstructing and discrediting critical civil society voices
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International

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 it entered into force in 2012, it has effectively made the legal and reputational risks of foreign funding too great for NGOs.

“This bill has nothing to do with transparency and everything to do with obstructing and discrediting critical civil society voices. It would be a significant step in Viktor Orbán’s march to ‘illiberal democracy’ and should be strongly opposed by fellow EU member states,” said John Dalhuisen.

“Hundreds of NGOs in Hungary are coming together to speak with one voice and reject this calculated assault on the rights to freedom of expression and association. Viktor Orbán’s government must take note and take steps to ensure that this draft bill is never tabled. Amnesty International will certainly not be alone in challenging this law if it ever hits the statute books.”

Background

The Law CLXXV of 2011 on the right to association, the public benefit status, and the operation and support of civil society organizations, (Sections 20, 29-30) prescribes detailed reporting requirements for civil society organisations.

See Amnesty International 2015 report on pressure put on civil society in Hungary https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur27/0001/2015/en/