Hungary’s NGOs feel ‘chilling effect’ of foreign funding law

With Hungary set to take up the rotating presidency of the Council in July, the so-called sovereignty law is likely to exacerbate tensions with European institutions and other EU member countries.
People wave a Hungarian national flag next to the Danube river, in Budapest, on 30 May.

By Lili Rutai

Lili Rutai is a London-based freelance journalist from Budapest. She has reported from central and eastern Europe for Al Jazeera, RFE/RL and Euronews

31 May 2024

The office of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), an independent human rights watchdog, is tucked away in a courtyard near Budapest’s largest synagogue, with a Holocaust memorial park in its backyard.

HHC has been working to uphold the rule of law in Hungary since 1989, the same year a young politician called Viktor Orbán called for free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. It keeps a long list of cases it has won against the government at the European Court of Human Rights, including lawsuits against police brutality and inhumane treatment of prisoners and refugees.

Now it risks being investigated under the Protection of National Sovereignty Act, introduced by Prime Minister Orbán’s government in December, which brings the threat of fines or imprisonment for anyone found to be under the influence of foreign funding – including from fellow EU countries.

With Hungary set to take up the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in July, the new law is likely to exacerbate tensions with European institutions and other member countries.

“This law has a chilling effect,” says Márta Pardavi, the lawyer who leads HHC. She worries that smaller NGOs, without in-house lawyers, will be intimidated by the law’s sweeping provisions and perhaps refrain from speaking up about their activities or the problems in the country.

“At this point, we are trying to protect the powers of civil society, to inform other organisations, calm them and make them feel safe,” she tells The Parliament.

Larger NGOs, particularly those with an international network, are also vulnerable. Amnesty International Hungary has a team of dozens of staff who work on issues such as LGTBQ rights and Ukrainian refugees, and monitor the country’s judicial system and rule of law.

Among its activities in Hungary, Amnesty partners with workplaces and schools to teach sessions on topics such as gender equality. But these relationships are coming under strain as the sovereignty protection law leads to fear of being associated with NGOs, says Áron Demeter, Amnesty International Hungary’s head of research and communications.

“There have been multiple cases. A school cancelled our invitation because the director got scared of the possible consequences,” he says.

Broad scope

The law has created a new institution, the Sovereignty Protection Office, with broad powers to investigate civil organisations, media and opposition parties suspected of coming under the influence of foreign powers.

The Civil Solidarity Forum (CÖF), a state-funded foundation, has taken up the call. It is creating a working group to investigate HHC, alongside Transparency International, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ), and others. It will pass on its findings to the Sovereignty Protection Office, local news site Telex reported.

In practice, this law can be used on anything, and any situation.

The stated purpose of the legislation was to protect Hungarian politics from external influence. But the wording of the new law remains vague on who will be prosecuted, for what, and why, lawyers say.

Independent NGOs say there is almost no information available on how the Sovereignty Protection Office will work. The closest they can get is the Facebook page of its president, Tamás Lánczy, who recently threatened an opposition politician with three years in jail if he was found to have taken an “illegal foreign subsidy.”

“In practice, this law can be used on anything, and any situation. It’s purposefully phrased so that everything is covered by it,” Amnesty’s Demeter tells The Parliament. “It’s not just about foreign funding, but that can be a ‘casus belli.’ They will investigate the organisations that have been in the sights of the government for years.”

HHC’s Pardavi says the real aim of the new law is to make democratic activities seem “suspicious,” even if funding or support arrives from allied countries within the EU.

Pressure campaign 

Since becoming prime minister for the second time in 2010, Orbán has been trying to neuter any organisation that could pose a threat to his Fidesz party’s hold on power, critics say.

Private media companies have been “taken over or silenced” while the public broadcaster has been “turned into a propaganda machine,” according to Reporters Without Borders. Amnesty said in 2021 that the government had, since 2010, “initiated and implemented several steps … that have adversely impacted the independence and impartiality of judicial institutions.”

In 2017, the Fidesz-majority parliament adopted a Russia-style law on “Transparency of Organisations Supported from Abroad,” which obliged organisations with foreign funding to indicate as much on their website and publications, and to publish a list of donors annually. Following widespread criticism, and condemnation from the EU Court of Justice, the government repealed the law in 2021.

In 2018, Hungary’s government passed legislation that criminalised various activities that support asylum seekers. It dubbed the legislation the “Stop Soros law,” referring to a conspiracy theory that a cabal of billionaires – including Hungarian-American businessman George Soros – are encouraging mass migration from Muslim countries to undermine European society.

The Court of Justice ruled in 2021 that the legislation violated EU law, but the damage was done. The Open Society Foundation, founded by Soros – whose Soros Foundation gave Orbán a grant to study at Oxford University in 1989 – left the country in 2018; the Central European University, also established by Soros, moved from Budapest to Vienna in 2019.

“The new law is the direct continuation of these laws,” says Demeter. “But it’s even more serious, as they have given it a lawful setting with the creation of a governmental office.”

Stefánia Kapronczay, director of strategy at TASZ, one of the NGOs targeted by the CÖF, says the new law is part of a coordinated, long-term campaign to discredit independent institutions.

“Laws like this contribute to some organisations, people, authorities not wanting to work with us anymore,” she says. “This stigmatisation – calling us ‘Soros organisations’ – is causing some people to say: ‘I agree with you, but I don’t dare to work with you.’”

Place in the EU

The campaign has provoked an outcry in the EU, which Hungary joined in 2004. In January, the European Parliament adopted a non-binding resolution condemning the erosion of the rule of law and called on other governments in the Council to determine whether the country should be stripped of its voting rights.

It’s trying to dissuade people from connecting with the EU and other EU states.

Lawmakers have also condemned the Sovereignty Protection law, warning of a “persistent systemic and deliberate breach” of EU values.

In reality, lawmakers’ power over EU member countries is limited. Other governments could, by a qualified majority vote in the Council, suspend Hungary’s voting rights on new EU legislation. But this would be a provocative and unprecedented step.

The European Commission could also request interim measures from the Court of Justice to suspend the sovereignty protection law. It should do so, says HHC’s Pardavi, because otherwise the law “could cause irreversible harm.”

Hungarians will go to the polls on 9 June for European Parliament and municipal elections. And on 1 July, Hungary will take over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU until the end of the year, allowing it to steer legislative talks among EU governments, and between the Council and the other EU institutions.

Pardavi says that the sovereignty law shows that Orbán’s government is actively trying to undermine EU power, even as it prepares to take up this influential position. “It’s trying to dissuade people from connecting with the EU and other EU states,” she says.

*This artricle has been updated to reflect that Hungary joined the EU in 2004. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Hungary had joined the bloc in 2014.