"Stop Soros" laws followed by restrictive new protest law


On 20th June 2018, which also happens to be World Refugee Day, the Hungarian Parliament passed a modified version of the so-called “Stop Soros” legislative package.  A month later, the parliament enacted another law substantially restricting the right to freedom of peaceful assembly (see Peaceful Assembly section below for more on this).

The "Stop Soros" laws contain restrictive asylum rules and introduce possible jail sentences for people “facilitating illegal immigration” by, for example, assisting NGOs that help asylum seekers.

Attila Mráz, the director of Political Freedoms Project at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) described the new Act for the CIVICUS Monitor as follows: 

“The Act in its final form introduces a new crime, the "support of illegal migration", as distinct from human trafficking. The extremely vague formulation of what activities are sanctioned under the new crime includes, among other examples, border observation as well as information distribution and network-building. The new Act uses criminal law to threaten those who use lawful means to help refugees and asylum-seekers, one of the most vulnerable groups in Hungary. The threat of criminal sanctions is expected to have a chilling effect on humanitarian work and legal aid provision, and further deteriorates the democratic, civic control of political power.”

The Act also imposes a "special tax" on organisations that "support immigration", with an extremely vague definition of what amounts to "support". According to Mraz, it seems that the tax authority has discretion “to decide which political and expert opinions, possibly even leaflets or blog posts or opinion pieces, issued by NGOs qualify as such support. The clear aim, and likely effect, of the new regulation is to further silence dissenting voices and stifle legitimate democratic public debates.”

Campaign to discredit independent NGOs ahead of elections

In a separate development, POLITICO reported that an Israeli private intelligence firm, Black Cube, was found to have been involved in a campaign to discredit critical NGOs ahead of Hungary’s April 2018 election. Some of the NGOs targeted are funded by George Soros, including Open Society Foundations and Civil Liberties Union for Europe. Between December 2017 and March 2018, Black Cube employees reportedly approached the NGO officials using false identities and companies and secretly recorded conversations with them. Excerpts from the recordings were then used by Prime Minister Viktor Orban to attack independent civil society organisations during the final days of the campaign.

Peaceful Assembly

On 20th June, in addition to the 'Stop Soros' legislation, the Hungarian Parliament passed a constitutional amendment, the seventh since the adoption of the Fundamental Law on 1st January 2012. The Fundamental Law was amended to include, among other things, the following: “Freedom of expression and the exercise of the right of assembly shall not violate the private and family life of others and their home” and “The state shall provide legal protection to homes to ensure peace of mind”. It is feared that the government intends to use the “sanctity” of private life to limit the fundamental freedoms of Hungarian citizens who are critical of it.

According to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union the new amendment “will bring confusion into the application of the law regulating freedom of expression and assembly, thereby discouraging citizens and journalists from openly expressing opinions in public, a practice that is indispensable in a democratic society”.

The new amendment also provides for the establishment of a new administrative court system, that is entitled to adjudicate cases of unlawfully banned or dissolved protests. Although the institution itself is not problematic from a human rights point of view, critics fear that the new administrative courts will be staffed by government-friendly judges who will not adhere to the rule of law. (An unofficial English translation provided by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee can be read here.)

The constitutional amendment is not the only worrisome legislative act the Hungarian parliament has passed in recent weeks. As Attila Mraz told the CIVICUS Monitor:

“In June, a new bill on the right to assembly was proposed by the government, without any consultation with other political parties and other stakeholders, and has since been enacted, ignoring all modification proposals by opposition MPs. Whereas the Act on the right to assembly currently in force allows the police to ban a protest only if very clearly identifiable circumstances [apply], the new Act will give the police wide discretion in banning assemblies. Even if, formally speaking, the police only needs to be notified of protests, in practice, notifications will bear resemblance to requests for permission. Furthermore, if organisers proceed with a protest despite a police ban, albeit entirely peacefully, they will now face criminal sanctions, in clear violation of European human rights standards established by ECtHR [European Court of Human Rights] case law.”

The new Act was passed without modification or consultation on 20th July 2018 and Mraz expects that it will have a considerable chilling effect on collective political expression and protests. He believes that with the advent of the new administrative court system in January 2019, not even the judicial review of police bans can be expected to serve as an effective guarantee of the fundamental right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

Analysis of the new act by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union concludes that it contradicts European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.