Disquiet grows over government plans to tighten civil society regulation

Association

The Hungarian government is proposing stricter regulations for NGOs, including requiring the leaders of organisations to disclose their assets. Civil society concerns have also grown over a bill that would require organisations to disclose foreign sources of funding. The government has argued that the new regulations serve to increase transparency and accountability in the sector. However, such transparency and accountability laws already exist in Hungary, and the new proposals more closely reflect similar language and intent contained in Russia's foreign agent legislation

Since 2010, the Hungarian government has increased the level of control over and interference in the operations of both domestic and international civil society organisations registered in the country. Prime Minister Viktor Orban himself has openly criticised NGOs in Hungary. In the last several years, civil society has been adversely affected by the government's negative position towards the sector while the authorities have ordered arbitrary audits of organisations. Activists have been threatened and several organisations funded by foreign donors have been defamed by sate-run media and elected officials. In the last several months, organisations connected to George Soros and his foundation as well as those financed from abroad have come under even greater attack and scrutiny. 

Peaceful Assembly

In recent years, Hungary has witnessed many anti-government protests, sparked by constitutional changes and threats against the justice system and independent media. In general, freedom of assembly is protected and there are rare cases of violence erupting or protests being disrupted. In February 2017, when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Budapest, a few hundred people organised a pro-EU, anti-Putin march in the city. The demonstration was peaceful, and participants had to reroute the march, as they were not allowed to be within 700 metres of the parliament building.  

The 15th of March is Hungary's National Day to commemorate the Revolution of 1848. This year, several thousand people turned out for a whistle protest during the Prime Minister's speech. The government had initially banned the protest, but the decision was later overturned in court. Protesters blew on whistles and shouted "Viktator!" and other slogans to disrupt the speech. There were reports of clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators and several people were injured. 

Expression

The private Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, which receives support from George Soros, is now under threat of being shut down should a proposed amendment to anti-immigration legislation be approved. The bill, if passed, would more strictly regulate the movement of international staff and students. The leadership of CEU, which has 1,440 students from 108 countries, responded to the government and public, declaring that the new amendment would “make it impossible for the university to continue its operations". Forcing independent universities and private educational institutions to close represents a serious blow to freedom of speech and independent thought. The government is due to reach a decision on this matter in April 2017.

Since the closure of one of the main opposition newspapers in Hungary, threats against freedom of expression have only grown. Though independent media outlets and journalists contribute to the Hungarian media landscape, their impact and influence is not as far-reaching when compared to the state-supported media companies. 2016 was a dire year for independent media in Hungary and experts are concerned that 2017 will only be worse. András Pethő, an award-winning journalist and co-founder of Direkt36, an investigative journalism NGO, identified the following two major concerns for the future of the Hungarian media landscape: loss of media pluralism and a significant media imbalance. As he stated grimly, 

"It’s much more difficult to operate news organizations because they are an expensive business...When you have an advertising market that is heavily distorted and influenced by the government and state-owned companies, then it’s pretty difficult to survive”.