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MEPs voted by a two-thirds majority to begin the Article 7 procedure under the Treaty on European Union, which can, in theory, lead to Hungary losing EU voting rights.
Hungarian civil society groups received a boost on 12th September 2018, when the European Parliament voted by a two-thirds majority to trigger a procedure under Article 7(1) of the Lisbon Treaty, a move which in theory could see Hungary's voting rights within the EU suspended because of a failure to adhere to EU values. The vote was based on a report by Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini, which in part highlighted the Hungarian government's actions to undermine independent civil society organisations, in particular those supporting migrants. The Sargentini report also highlights threats to the freedom of the press in Hungary.
Reacting to the vote, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, said:
"By triggering the Article 7 procedure, the European Parliament has made it clear that illiberal democracy is against the core values of the European Union. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee welcomes that the EP has validated, with a two-third majority, the long-standing concerns over the Hungarian political system."
Under the Article 7 procedure, the Council of Europe can confirm that a breach of the EU's values has taken place in Hungary, however such a decision requires a unanimity, meaning that there is a risk it could be blocked by just one of Hungary's allies voting against the decision.
As the CIVICUS Monitor previously reported in June 2018 the Hungarian Parliament passed a modified version of the so-called “Stop Soros” legislative package. The new legislation imposed a "special tax" on organisations that "support immigration."
On 24th August, these new special tax regulations went into effect. Attila Mráz, the director of Political Freedoms Project at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) told CIVICUS Monitor that:
“The new law, which leaves it somewhat of a mystery due to its extremely vague wording whose activities (of what sort) and whose revenues are subject to it, levies a 25% tax on (supposedly) the revenue of those organizations which "show immigration in a positive light."
According to Mráz, while immigration is a matter of legitimate political debate, the new law “serves to stifle that debate by imposing the threat of a huge financial burden on anyone who wishes to maintain and contribute to public, democratic, and even academic discourse on immigration”.
A prime example of the chilling effect of the new regulation is that the Budapest-based Central European University suspended its free and highly reputed education program for registered refugees and asylum-seekers, as well as the administration of an EU-funded grant on migration policy in Central and Southern Europe on the day the new tax kicked in.
On 17th September 2018, three NGOs - Amnesty International Hungary, Migration Aid and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee - said they would not pay the tax. In its statement, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said that, although they believed they were not subject to the tax, the new law would make their "work more difficult as its vague wording could result in arbitrary application of the law. It may also discourage some of our donors not exempt from the law, from financially supporting our work concerning refugees".
The immigration tax was only one of the reasons a number of Hungarian and international civil groups called on MEPs to vote in favour of launching the EU’s Article 7 procedure against Hungary in September. Meanwhile the governing Fidesz party continues its smear campaign against rights organisations. According to them the NGOs signing the letter calling for a "yes" vote “want to flood Europe with migrants” and are on “Soros’s payroll”.
On 1st August 2018, Hir TV, Hungary's last domestically-owned independent TV company was sold to Zsolt Nyerges, an ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. This forms part of an ongoing strategy which has seen businesses allied to the governing Fidesz party gaining control over the majority of the media landscape in Hungary. International press freedom organisations are urging European Union officials to condemn the latest developments and strengthen the link between eligibility for funding under the European Union's next Multiannual Financial Framework and respect for media freedom.
The right to freedom of association is guaranteed under Hungary’s constitution.
The right to freedom of association is guaranteed under Hungary’s constitution. State funding to NGOs is centralised through the National Cooperation Fund, which is a body made up of political appointees.
NGOs critical of recent government policy have been subject to administrative and judicial harassment, and threatened with deregistration. In January 2015, four NGOs responsible for managing and distributing a grant from the European Economic Area (EEA) and Norway were threatened with the suspension of their tax registration number, and proceedings were initiated against them. The proceedings were later suspended, but were found to be constitutional by Hungary’s Constitutional Court. Two of the NGOs affected were subject to criminal investigations into their activities, which resulted in findings of no wrong-doing. In written communications to the Hungarian Government, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association voiced concern that state actions may “obstruct and stigmatise the work of associations operating in the country”.
The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is largely observed in policy and practice under provisions of the Fundamental Law.
The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is largely observed in policy and practice under provisions of the Fundamental Law. However, the three-day notification requirement remains the main rule applicable to organisers of gatherings in contravention of international best practice which suggests a maximum 48 hour notification period. In contradiction of domestic law, authorities have also prevented assemblies on the assumption that criminal offences may be committed by participants. Vulnerable and minority groups, including members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) and refugee communities – have been subjected to additional barriers to their exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. On 4th June 2015, the Mayor of Budapest István Tarlós made a public statement in which he said that the Budapest Pride march - organised by the rainbow Mission Foundation, a CSO promoting the rights of LGBTI people – was ‘repulsive.’
Whilst the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed under Hungary’s constitution, this right is subverted through complex legal and regulatory requirements.
Whilst the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed under Hungary’s constitution, this right is subverted through complex legal and regulatory requirements. The Media Council, under the auspices of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority, has the power to impose substantial fines, and is perceived as lacking political independence. Criminal defamation charges are routinely brought against journalists, by politicians, with at least 17 cases filed in 2015 alone.