Hungary facing EU court action because of restrictive NGO law

Association

The Hungarian government is digging in its heels in the face of legal action by the EU Commission over a controversial new law on foreign funding of NGOs. The Commission took action over claims that Hungary is failing to meet its obligations on freedom of movement and violating the "right to freedom of association and the right to protection of private life and personal data enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union". The Commission gave Hungary one month to respond to its latest communication; however,  the Hungarian government had failed to adequately respond to both communications by the 4th November 2017 deadline. 

On 6th November, Hungary's justice minister slammed the “unnecessarily short deadlines” imposed by the EU and claimed it would respond within the normal two-month window. According to a press release from the Commission in October, should Hungary fail to respond, they "may refer the case to the Court of Justice of the EU".

On 13th June 2017, Hungary adopted the Law on the Transparency of Organisations Receiving Foreign Funds, which requires any organisation receiving more than €24,000 from abroad to register as "foreign supported". Under the law, NGOs also have to list any foreign sponsors granting them more than €1,600 a year. The law requires qualifying organisations to label all communications materials accordingly and comply with additional administrative requirements. Failure to comply with the law can lead to the freezing of assets or even termination of organisations' activities.

Local and international civil society organisations widely condemned the passing of this law as a clear attempt to violate the freedom of association and extend the control of the state over civil society organisations. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) vowed to boycott the new act, stating that they were already fully transparent and compliant with existing laws in Hungary. In a statement released on the day of the law's adoption, Stefánia Kapronczay, HCLU’s Executive Director said:

"We are aware of the possibility that legal proceedings may be instituted against us. We are not afraid of these...In order to help civil society, other foundations and associations, we must ride for a fall, proving on ourselves that the act violates rights. We are convinced that, in the course of lengthy proceedings, the unlawful NGO Act will fail".  

A report published by five Hungarian NGOs in October 2017 documents how the passing of this NGO Act is just a small part of the country's transformation into an "illiberal state". The report addresses the wide-ranging violations of basic democratic principles, including unfair elections, attacks against the media and dissenting voices, state-run hate campaigns and a disregard for "common European norms".

This decline in respect for basic freedoms has also been accompanied by a troubling, state-driven campaign of vilification against George Soros. Soros, who is a Hungarian Jew, has supported numerous civil society organisations and progressive causes in Hungary and around the world. His organisation, Open Society Foundation, has funded many organisations in Hungary and President Viktor Orban has labeled Soros an enemy of the state, intent on destabilising the country. Part of this campaign included anti-Soros posters displayed across Hungary, including on large billboards and in train stations. Some of these posters were defaced with racist slurs.