Hungarian government threatens its citizens’ courage with the so-called “Protection of Sovereignty Act”


The new Hungarian legislative package known as the "Protection of Sovereignty Act" contains some legitimate elements. However, while serious dangers to the country's sovereignty are outside its purview, a new agency is now empowered to harass anybody accused of "serving foreign interests."

Photo of the Parliament building in Budapest at dusk

Hungary unquestionably needs sovereignty protection measures. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as the increasingly hostile relations between China and the West, would seem to justify this even more today. However, in recent years, Hungary has emerged as an entry point for external authoritarian influence into the EU and NATO. We have become one of the most vulnerable countries in the Euro-Atlantic alliance, and not only when it comes to Russian intelligence operations.

In December 2023, after a long communication campaign, the government adopted a law called the “Protection of Sovereignty Act”, but real sovereignty threats do not happen to be its target. On the contrary, it seems as if it wants to prevent the operation of the very organizations which, in recent years, have highlighted the national security and corruption risks which can be rightly assumed to strengthen Hungary's dependence on foreign powers and threaten its sovereignty.

The Office for the Protection of Sovereignty may conduct an investigation against anyone

In 2024, the Office for the Protection of Sovereignty will be created with sweeping powers to arbitrarily target any organization or person it suspects of serving foreign interests and jeopardizing Hungary’s sovereignty.

The new authority, which will be subjugated to the National Assembly and led by a person appointed by the president, will officially be tasked with monitoring media outlets, civil society organizations and other “risk factors” to sovereignty and issuing public reports on the data they gather from time to time.

According to the bill, this authority would have powers to obtain unhindered access to sensitive data, including confidential contracts, client information, and even private medical records being kept by any organization subjected to an investigation.

Beyond independent NGOs and media outlets, which governmental politicians have already mentioned as future targets, no individual or organization is safe from this invasive scrutiny, not even businesses, churches, trade unions, or municipalities. Once commenced, these investigations, which can be launched at the authority's discretion against anyone, carry a stigma and leave the persons targeted with little legal recourse against the procedure or the resulting public report.

No foreign money in municipal election campaigns

The act includes a provision stating that, like political parties, CSOs fielding candidates for local office are not permitted to take foreign donations. It is constitutionally permissible to require candidates running for office to disclose their financial sources, which is why political parties have been prohibited from accepting foreign funding since 1989.

The question arises as to why the moment has come to tighten campaign money rules just now. The answer is the fact that the government has kept the scandalous case of the opposition parties' campaigns being financed from overseas on the agenda since the 2022 parliamentary elections. Following this "foreign intervention in Hungarian domestic politics and elections" campaign, action had to be taken.

Therefore, in addition to establishing a new authority, the sovereignty protection package alters both the election procedure legislation and the Penal Code, making accepting foreign money for campaign activities a crime punishable by a three-year jail sentence.

The new rules, however, maintain the campaign corruption that has been perpetrated for the last decade by Fidesz: There will be no barriers to pro-Fidesz GONGOs (Government-organized non-governmental organizations) campaigning against opposition parties and conducting smear campaigns against their politicians. The reason is that they are typically not supported from abroad, but rather – directly or indirectly – from domestic public funds.

What is new?

We could say that we’ve already “been there” and that the civil society sphere in Hungary is still thriving. Indeed, the new package is distinct from the 2017 "Lex NGO" or the 2018 "Stop Soros Law."

However, to begin with, calling this an anti-civil society law is an understatement, as its scope is considerably broader.

The 2017 Lex NGO aimed to stigmatize foreign-funded NGOs. It was specifically a refined adaptation of the Russian “Foreign Agent” Act. While the majority of NGOs in Russia which were the focus of the original law have now been disbanded, in Hungary this effort stopped at the level of scaremongering.

The first draft of the 2018 "Stop Soros Law" called for national security agencies to screen NGOs working on migration. The adopted version ended up including criminal threats: asylum seeker aides, those who developed and disseminated information booklets for asylum seekers, and those who conducted border monitoring for human rights purposes were all threatened with prison. All of this fit with the anti-migration campaign that dominated the public discourse back then.

The recent “Sovereignty Protection Act” is harsher because it focuses on everyone - not just the media or civil society, but pretty much anyone who is involved in public affairs in any way.

It is impossible to consider this legislation to be legitimate, as it is so imprecise, so sloppily worded, that you cannot point your finger at the groups or individuals who may be its targets.

This deliberate ambiguity allows the new authority to arbitrarily consider any activity related to public affairs as serving foreign interests and thereby posing a threat to Hungary’s sovereignty. This is an obvious attempt to weaponize the law, create a chilling effect, and consolidate political power, which is a hazardous development for Hungarian democracy.

The political message, however, is crystal clear. Its purpose is to instill fear and anxiety in all those participating in public affairs.

Instead of protecting sovereignty, the law protects those in power

The “self-defense” bill is a thinly disguised attempt to scare courageous people who work in the best interests of their communities and to dissuade them from participating in public life. This legislation, like the stigmatizing “Lex NGO” and “Stop Soros” measures of 2017, is an affront to Hungary's constitutional, international, and EU commitments.

If Fidesz truly cared about preserving Hungary's sovereignty, it would focus its efforts on fighting the harmful influence of authoritarian nations outside of our politico-economic and military alliance structures. Instead, it chooses to target its own citizens in order to silence criticism and consolidate control at the expense of democracy. This self-serving strategy is detrimental, damaging Hungary's international reputation.

True sovereignty consists of protecting citizens' rights and liberties rather than oppressing them. Fidesz's erroneous acts violate this essential principle.


Towards a Resilient Hungary: Political Capital's Proposals for the Genuine Protection of Sovereignty

Even before the government presented its proposal, Political Capital presented its own 21-point proposal that could genuinely protect Hungary's sovereignty and reduce its vulnerability in four key areas: national security, energy, the economy, and information sovereignty. You can find the proposal here.