Hungary is to demolish critical NGOs with new bills

In recent weeks civil organisations in Hungary have been kept busy by a law package that the Government has drafted. It bears the name “Stop Soros” and would restrict freedom of expression and freedom of association as well as refugees’ right to protection.

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The campaign is on: one of the many "Stop Soros" posters on the streets of Budapest

If passed, the proposed law package "Stop Soros" could practically dissolve the entire civil sphere that is critical towards the government. It contravenes both international law and the fundamental law of Hungary and consists of three legislative proposals.

Vague formulations and broad concepts

1. The first proposal is about “the licencing of organisations supporting migration”.[1] Here they introduce a new concept, that of an “organisation that supports migration”, which refers to any organisation in the form of an association or foundation that, “in the interest of providing international protection, sponsors, organises or supports in any other way the entry via a safe third country or the stay of a Third Country National in Hungary”.

This concept does not comply with the constitutional minimum requirement for the clarity of norms, since providing support to someone “in any other way” can mean anything. For example, if an organisation attacks the Government for cases of corruption, with such a law in effect the Government could allege the organisation is just attempting to draw the Government’s attention and capacities away from combating migration and then label the organisation as “supporting” migration.

The text of the proposal lists a few examples of activities that fall in this category, such as producing informative materials, building networks, gathering volunteers, or advocacy—virtually all activities an NGO may have to fulfil.

Moreover, the law would force NGOs to incriminate themselves, since according to the proposal those organisations that “self-identify” should apply for a licence from the Minister of the Interior in order to continue functioning. After applying, these organisations will have to undergo a tax investigation and national security clearance so the authorities can confirm that their activities are not endangering the safety of the country.

The proposal does specify that passing that part of the law in the National Assembly will be subject to a two-thirds majority, but this detail does not change anything substantial. Should not enough votes be found, the national security clearance requirement will be omitted, but the NGOs will still be required to acquire their licence from the Minister of the Interior. Should an application be rejected, any real legal remedy will be impossible, and the organisation will be required to suspend their activities for one year before being able to apply again for an operation permit.

If an NGO does not file for a licence to operate, and if the Government regards it as an organisation “supporting migration”, the prosecutor will start proceedings against them during which the organisation may have their tax number suspended, be required to pay a fine, or, at the end of the process, may even be terminated.

Fines and restrictions

2. The second proposal is about the “immigration financing duty”. According to this proposal, those organisations that are “supporting migration” (and have been granted their licence to operate in the country by the Minister of the Interior) have to pay a punitive tax in the amount of 25% of every financial donation received from abroad. They will only be exempted from this fine if they can prove that they have not spent their funds on the support of asylum-seekers or refugees. If they fail to pay this, they can be required to pay an even higher fine (up to 50% of their foreign income sources). Funds from the European Union are also regarded as foreign funds.

3. The third proposal is on “immigration restraining orders”. Based on this bill, the minister in charge of immigration and refugee affairs (the Minister of the Interior) would be authorised to ban Hungarian citizens from coming within eight kilometres of the borders by referencing national security interests or alleging that to do so poses a danger to the public interest. Such a ban may only be ordered while a state of crisis due to mass migration is in effect—but this condition does not warrant anything, since a state of crisis has been illicitly in place since  March 2016 over the country’s whole territory.

Thus, due to its very loose conceptual framework, this law package may apply to any organisation the Government will want to apply it to, thereby endangering the continuous operation of the whole civil sphere that is critical towards the Government. These organisations could be subject to serious fines, they could have their tax numbers suspended, or their operations could even be terminated. People working for these organisations can be banned from the vicinity of the borders, a proposal unprecedented in Hungary since the fall of communism. There is no way for real legal remedy to be provided for any of these cases.

Propaganda tool

What is common to all three proposals is that they were submitted by Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén and presented by Antal Rogán, Minister of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet. The latter is the ministry responsible for governmental propaganda and hate campaigns to which citizens were urged to send in their opinions by email under an action titled “national reconciliation”. This totally untraceable process of “evaluation” is a tool with which the Government repetitively tries to legitimate measures that are strongly abridging rights or are divisive in some form, as the famous “national consultations” of recent years have demonstrated.

Each questionnaire of these “national consultations” has contained untrue statements and downright lies. Furthermore, they were processed in a completely non-transparent manner, without any evidence proving that the actually-received responses truly comply with the Government’s communication in terms of content and number. The last of these “national consultations” dealt with the so-called “Soros plan”, which is completely unclear in and of itself. In that questionnaire the Government claimed that György (George) Soros and the NGOs under his control want to flood the country with immigrants who would have to receive state support in the amount of HUF 9 million each (about EUR 30 000).

According to the Government’s communication, that particular “national consultation” has been the “most successful of all time" and the given responses clearly confirmed that “Hungarians do not want Hungary to become an immigrant country”. They have submitted the “Stop Soros” law package proposal by referring to these “results”, even though this particular proposal has nothing to do with the actual American-Hungarian billionaire — but it does perfectly serve the purpose of silencing and getting rid of civil organisations that are still functioning as the loudest critical voices toward the Government.

This process is unfortunately very well known from other authoritarian regimes and dictatorships. In such countries, restraining civil organisations has been achieved via similar propaganda tools and legislative processes. Typically these laws label civil society as the “enemy of the nation” representing foreign interests and harmful for the country in some way. When the propaganda achieves the desired effect, a Government can proceed with legislative modifications, labelling organisations as “foreign agents” or “national security risks”, and as such it can start punishing them—first by means of administrative burdens, then fines, then higher taxes, and eventually by terminating their activities or, to demonstrate a Government’s power, even by limiting the freedom of their employees and imprisoning them.

It is also a typical pattern that, while turning civil organisations that are defending the law into official enemies, a Government will also create so-called GONGOs (governmental-organised NGOs) in parallel from their own supportive circles. In Hungary such organisations can already be found in, for instance, the form of the Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF) or the Civil Összefogás Közhasznú Alapítvány (CÖKA), which the Government is using to set an example and to divide the civil sphere into “good” and “bad” civil society groups, rewarding the former and punishing the latter.

Translation by Zsófia Deák

Proofreading by Gwendolyn Albert


[1]      English citations from the text of the bill are taken from an unofficial English translation produced by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the analysis of the Eötvös Károly Institute.