Civil society considers proposed "Stop Soros" laws "deceitful"


On 18th January 2018, the Hungarian government made public three proposed laws that could pose a threat to civil society organisations (CSOs), especially those focusing on human rights and migrants' rights. The legislation was presented under the auspices of "protecting national security" and halting "illegal migration". However, the laws would sanction and penalise civic groups that receive foreign funding and engage in "illegal" activities, which could even include humanitarian efforts. 

The proposals include a requirement for organisations working with immigrants, especially migrants entering illegally, to register and declare their activities as such. In addition, organisations would have to pay a tax of up to 25 percent on the funds received from abroad. Also, CSOs would be at serious risk of losing their charitable status under these strict regulations. 

It is concerning to note that representatives of the government reportedly informed the media that if certain organisations do not voluntarily register their activities, they will be forced to do so. According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the proposed laws seek to "starve and strangle" civil society and have been dubbed "Stop Soros", in reference to Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros who has been the subject of a long-running smear campaign by the government. Some feel the laws may aim to influence the agenda before general elections on 8th April 2018 and to silence organisations critical of  the government. 

Dalma Dojcsák, Director of the Political Freedoms Project at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, told the CIVICUS Monitor on 24th January that she believes that the proposed laws are

"...deceitful, for it is not about combating illegal immigration, but about silencing organizations critical of the government".

In addition to attacks from the central government, local municipalities and the media are also now targeting CSOs. In December 2017, the municipalities of a number of larger Hungarian cities, such as Kaposvár, Miskolc, Pécs, and Debrecen, started campaigning against, and in some cases, making administrative decisions that hinder local organisations involved in helping the poor and less fortunate. In response to such destructive actions, more than 100 NGOs signed a declaration of support and solidarity with their counterparts throughout the country. One of the targeted organisations - Emberség Erejével Alapítvány - had decided to take the case to court.  

European Commission moves ahead with legal action over 2017 NGO law

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the anti-NGO law introduced in 2017 already requires associations and foundations receiving more than €24,000 from abroad to register as "foreign supported". The law requires qualifying organisations to label all communications materials accordingly - as foreign supported - and comply with additional administrative requirements. Failure to comply with all legal provisions can lead to the freezing of assets or even termination of an organisation's activities.

The anti-NGO law struck a negative chord with the European Union (EU). In early December 2017, the European Commission decided to take Hungary to the European Court of Justice over the NGO law. The European Parliament is also now examining the state of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary, given the harmful 2017 NGO law and newly-proposed legislation on civil society.

Frustrated by a lack of progress on their complaint submitted in June 2017, fourteen Hungarian CSOs took their case on the issue of foreign funding restrictions to the European Court of Human Rights in December 2017.

Political parties also under fire

In December 2017, the State Audit Office fined the far-right Jobbik Party for receiving illegal campaign funds of some one million EUR. Many believe this sanctioning was an attempt to sideline the far-right party, which is currently the second most popular party in the polls. This perceived threat to Hungarian political parties prompted other opposition parties along the political spectrum to join Jobbik supporters at a protest, even if they don't see eye-to-eye on certain issues. Later in December, the State Audit Office also fined other opposition parties, though with somewhat smaller sums. According to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, there is no mechanism to appeal a State Audit Office's decision, which the Union has claimed to be unconstitutional.