Deepening crackdown on civil society in the European Union – the case of Hungary

The environment in which CSOs in Hungary have to operate is quite challenging since the state’s primary goal is to silence and eliminate independent voices

Bulcsú Hunyadi, Veszna Wessenauer (Political Capital)
23 May 2017

The Hungarian government has been systematically limiting the space of civil society in Hungary since 2010[1]. According to the report [2] on the state of Hungarian civil society, which was authored by the Hungarian research institute Political Capital on behalf of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, civil society organisations (CSOs) have been heavily affected by the policies of the ruling party Fidesz in Hungary. In his infamous speech at Baile Tusnad in 2014, when he famously suggested building an illiberal state, Viktor Orbán referred to CSOs which monitor the government and state institutions, and criticise government policies as “political activists paid from abroad”. Orban has stated, at several occasions over the last couple of years, that the state must dissolve the part of civil society that serves “foreign interests”.

Up until 2017, this limiting phenomenon was realized in the forms of administrative and legal measures, political smear campaigns, police raids, investigations by various authorities and court cases. In 2017, the government stepped into the next phase and proposed a law which is based on the example of the Russian “foreign agent law”. If the law comes into force, organisations receiving more than HUF 7.2 million (≈EUR 23,000) a year from abroad will be required to register themselves. The proposal also stipulates that if a civil society organisation gets money from abroad over the abovementioned limit, it must declare it has become an “organisation supported from abroad” and they would be obliged to display this on every one of their media materials and publications. Organisations that do not fulfil this obligation can be fined and then, after another unsuccessful warning, the Prosecutors Office may request the court to delete the organisation failing to fulfil its obligation from the NGO registry. The legislative proposal is another step taken towards building an authoritarian regime similar to Putin’s Russia.

How it came to this

Since 2010, the Hungarian government has transformed the whole environment of CSOs, including the legal, financial, social and political environment. While the new laws have brought about several positive changes, they have also redefined “public benefit” (to mean beneficial to the state and the government), increased the administrative burdens on CSOs, and limited their opportunities to take part in decision-making. Thus, professional cooperation with state officials has become almost impossible. State funding has decreased and become dependent on ideology and loyalty. Since 2013, a continuous campaign has been going on against certain CSOs to intimidate and silence them. The main elements for concern of the campaign are the following: administrative measures, investigations by police and other authorities and politically motivated smear campaigns.

In an “illiberal” state with more and more autocratic characteristics like Hungary, CSOs along with independent institutions can choose from three options: either they avoid any topics and activities that might interfere with questions of public life, or they cooperate with the state and help reach the government’s objectives (like GONGOs), or they become an enemy of the state.

As far as the cumulative effects of the governmental attacks on the civil sphere are concerned, the most important finding of the report is that the campaign against CSOs has not yet managed to reach its goal of intimidating CSOs. Answers indicated that despite all the effort, CSOs have not retreated but looked for counterstrategies, strengthened their commitment to their values and their cooperation while confronting the government’s rhetoric. Many organisations rethought the way they work, and expanded their activities beyond their professional and advocacy functions to include a more active role on the ground, building a supporter base and strengthening communities. Organisations have become more active in their communications, focusing more on public actions instead of traditional advocacy, and shifting their attention to organising communities to encourage people at the local level to take public matters into their own hands. The purpose of these new approaches is to inform the public about their activities and cooperate their efforts.

The environment in which CSOs in Hungary have to operate is quite challenging since the state’s primary goal is to silence and eliminate voices independent from and critical towards the government. Although there is usually particular focus on the most critical CSOs defending civil rights and fundamental freedoms, the laws and measures of the government have a secondary aim, namely extending the chilling effect on the civil sphere as a whole, inhibit and discourage CSOs to legitimately exercise their right to free speech and freedom of assembly by the threat of legal sanctions. These governmental pushbacks against the civil sphere are all parts of a bigger picture which aims to control political and ideological pluralism and build the way to a semi-authoritarian or authoritarian regime.

For the full report see the following link.

Photo: NGOs participate in the 63rd Session of the UNHCR Executive Committee, Flickr

Bulcsú Hunyadi is Senior Analyst of the Political Capital in Budapest, Hungary. He has been in the Political Capital since 2007, where he heads the organisation’s programme focusing on radicalism, rightwing extremism and populism. His research areas include far-right and populist argumentation, radicalism prevention, anti-Roma and anti-Semitic sentiments. He also covers the state of civil society in Hungary and civic education.

Veszna Wessenauer is Analyst of the Political Capital in Budapest, Hungary, since 2015. She was the local partner of EU-Russia Civil Society Forum for the Forum’s General Assembly in Hungary in 2015. Before joining Political Capital, she conducted research on free speech-related legal dilemmas, online political violence, Hungary’s state of democracy, and human rights education. At Political Capital, her main fields of research include the state of civil society and attitudes of the youth towards democracy.

The article on the CSOs in Poland will be published on Wednesday.

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[1] USAID CSO Sustainability Index results on Hungary

[2] In order to gather data on the situation of CSOs, the trends within the civil sector, the challenges faced by the organisations and their responses, Political Capital conducted an online survey and personal interviews with representatives of CSOs. Even though it was not a representative survey, the results are based on 144 completed questionnaires and 10 interviews.