Hungarian gov’t targets NGOs, Atlatszo.hu is also under assault

A row sparked by the Hungarian government over the Norwegian funding of local NGOs is escalating to the extent that groups advocating environmental concerns and anti-corruption are being targeted by the authorities. The only tangible reason to be found is that the government doesn’t appreciate funding going to organizations it didn’t approve.

A government official recently stated that support schemes that among others, sponsor Hungarian NGOs selected grant recipients based on political affiliation. This was state-secretary and soon-to-be minister János Lázár, who is usually considered to be the “strong man” of the governing Fidesz party.

In this case, the money was coming from Norway under the aid scheme funded by non-EU countries that are part of the free-trade European Economic Area. The Hungarian government pointed out that the countries involved, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland aren’t giving away money for charity, but contributing to EU developments in return for enjoying the benefits offered by the bloc without being actual members.

Lázár objected to the manner in which the Norwegian money was distributed, saying the channels could be linked to Hungary’s political opposition and insisted that the funds be overseen by a government agency.

The tensions sparked by Hungary’s outrage against “foreign tampering” have led to Norway suspending its other, economically far more significant support scheme. The Norwegian Foreign Affairs Ministry said that Hungary was approved 153.3 million euros and already received close to 12 million euros.

The Prime Minister’s Office published the list of NGOs that are allegedly funded by the Norwegian Civil Fund for political reasons to act against the Hungarian government. Besides Atlatszo.hu, which is featured on the list, the other organizations represent issues such as equal rights for women, teaching democracy, or stopping domestic violence. Atlatszo.hu has submitted a formal query to the Prime Minister’s Office to disclose the register of various NGOs’ party affiliations, which based on the logic of this list, has to exist. Atlatszo.hu also asked for the explanation of the constitutional basis of why a government would need to keep a record of NGOs’ political preferences.

As things stand, the organizations that are receiving or have received grants are prone to face investigations from the authorities, with the declared intent to decide whether they were legitimate recipients of the Norwegian money, or they were handpicked to represent niche political interests that go against the will of the Hungarian majority.

For a while now, Lázár has been a person of interest for Atlatszo.hu for his curiously financed hunting trips. Most recently, local news portal Origo.hu found that he amassed astronomical hotel bills covering official travel expenses for himself and an unnamed associate over a period of time. He then went on to announce he would put an end to the matter by repaying the expenses, without clarifying the reasons for the costs or who the travel companion in question was.

Update: Gergő Sáling, Editor-in-Chief of Origo was abruptly fired on Tuesday, while publisher of Origo, Telekom Hungary is denying allegations that political pressure generated by the Lázár stories was involved in their rapid decision to quit Sáling.

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