Stop Targeting Civil Society in Hungary!

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After the widespread criticism due to the elimination of independent institutions, the dismantling of the framework of parliamentarianism, the opening of the second term of Viktor Orban’s government in 2014 has seen even more challenges: new impetus was given to questioning the credibility and hindering the independent financing of autonomous civil organizations representing a counterbalance to the government.

The Norway Financial Mechanism (Norway Grants) is part of an agreement between the EU and Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein about funding projects in less-developed European economies. The Hungarian government launched its attack against the Norwegian Civic Fund (NCTA) at the beginning of April, only a day after its massive re-election victory. The NCTA is a small portion of the Norway Grants, which is distributed by a consortium of four Hungarian foundations, which have previously administered the grants with great success. The accusation is that through the four foundations, Norway is trying to influence Hungarian politics. Norway firmly denied the accusations.

When the Norwegian government rejected the charges, the Hungarian government sent agents of the Government Control Office (KEHI) to audit the Fund’s administering organizations. The government has led an escalating campaign accusing the four NGOs of political meddling that helped Norway disburse the grants. It said KEHI would audit Okotars, the consortium leader NGO, but sent KEHI agents to two other partner organizations as well. The foundations were threatened with the suspension of their tax number if refused cooperation. The legal basis of the audit is disputed by the administering organizations of the consortium.

In the past years, NGOs, especially those critical of or countering the ideology of the government (LGBT+ rights groups) were subjected to defamatory attempts. On May 30, 2014, an article was published stating that the government blacklisted independent Hungarian civil organizations that have benefitted from the Norwegian Civic Fund (NCTA) on the basis of their alleged political affiliation. In an emailed statement to Reuters on this day, the government said it had no intention of fighting individual NGOs, but it repeated the charges that the grants sought to exert political influence.

Civil organizations’ opportunities for legal advocacy and the room to maneuver are becoming smaller, and media publications may be henceforward constrained to exercise self-censorship because regulations of the media law curtailing the freedom of speech and judicial practices would hold them back from publishing articles criticizing the government. All these steps make Hungary resemble Putin’s Russia, where, with the silencing of the last free voices, all the defenses of the democratic state are being demolished.

According to Atlatszo.hu – one of the blacklisted NGOs: the scandal sparked by the Hungarian government over the Norwegian funding of local NGOs has escalated 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 Hungarian government doesn’t approve of funding being distributed to organizations, which they do not approve of.

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

According to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, another blacklisted NGO: These are steps in a series of government actions aiming to silence people, from ordinary citizens to the press to civil society, and prevent them from voicing any criticism against the government. An examination of government actions since 2010 shows that the elimination of independent institutions, the dismantling of the frameworks of parliamentarianism and the trivialization of opposition voices already started during the previous government cycle. Such measures include the Media Law, the curtailing of the Constitutional Court’s authority, the elimination of the institution of the independent Data Protection Ombudsman, the transformation of the election system and the means of approval and contents of the Fundamental Law.

As part of the government’s silencing efforts of independent voices, the editor-in-chief of one of the largest Hungarian online news sites, Origo.hu, was forced unexpectedly to leave his job on June 2. On the last week of May, the news site published a series on János Lázár, Secretary of State for the Prime Minister’s Office, noting that his recent spending of 6.500 EUR from public funds on travel expenses was presumably unjustified. In response, János Lázár exercised visible pressure. It is probably due to this incident that the editor-in-chief of Origo.hu, who was said to have resisted the political pressure exercised by the publishing company, was forced to quit yesterday. The editorial board of Origo.hu expressed its disagreement with dismissing the editor-in-chief and considers the conditions for continuing its work insecure. Since June 2, a number of staff members quit their jobs. The management of Origo.hu denied the accusations about political pressure.

Recommended articles, statements:

http://www.liberties.eu/en/news/putins-methods-against-criticism

http://norvegcivilalap.hu/en/government_attacks_hungarian_NGOs

http://english.atlatszo.hu/2014/06/03/hungarian-govt-targets-ngos-atlatszo-hu-is-also-under-assault/

http://www.transparency.org/news/pressrelease/transparency_international_calls_for_an_immediate_end_to_intimidation_

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/06/02/us-hungary-norway-funding-ngo-idUSKBN0ED1QW20140602?feedType=RSS&irpc=932

http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/06/05/dispatches-harassing-civil-society-hungary

About the constitutional de-constructing:

http://tasz.hu/en/news/hclu-hungarian-example

Action:

If you agree with the statement below, please publish it on your website or your social media platform on June 12, 2014. If you would like to amend the statement, please feel free to do so. We recommend using a simple black picture to illustrate a statement in order to demonstrate the unity of the action.

Timeline:

On June 12, the Hungarian Government meets the representatives of Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein to discuss the European Economic Area Grants, to which the Norway Grants is part of. In response to the above-described events, we ask our partner NGOs to publish the statement below on June 12th at 9AM in solidarity with Hungarian civil society.

Statement:

Stop Targeting Hungarian NGOs!

Since its re-election, the Hungarian government launched a campaign attacking the credibility of Hungarian NGOs and are striving to gain controlling power over their funding distributed independently from the government. We believe that a dynamic and independent civil society plays a fundamental role in a democratic society, as it is one of the key checks and balances to governing power. As demonstrated by Putin’s Russia, the harassment of the civil sector could easily lead to the criminalization of NGOs and could effectively hinder their work. We stand in solidarity with the Hungarian NGOs and call on the Hungarian and all other governments to refrain from harassing civil society!

  • szorokin

    The Lazar Affair – Is freedom of expression under threat? (The Economist, Jun 14th 2014)

    “DECENT jobs are hard to find in Hungary’s shrinking media. So a mass resignation from one of the country’s leading news portals, amid claims of political pressure, has been a big shock. Around 30 journalists have resigned from origo.hu after the departure of Gergo Saling, the editor. More may follow.

    On May 27th Mr Saling published an exposé of the lavish expenses claimed for business trips abroad by Janos Lazar, the powerful chief of cabinet to the prime minister, Viktor Orban. Mr Lazar, who seems to be Mr Orban’s anointed successor, issued a sarcastic statement and repaid the money: almost 2m forint ($8,870). A week later, Mr Saling was gone; hundreds of journalists and their supporters marched from origo.hu’s office to the parliament.

    The affair may have wider ramifications. Origo.hu is owned by Magyar Telekom, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom. A rival website, 444.hu, claims that the government has exerted steady pressure on Magyar Telekom to tone down origo.hu’s critical coverage. Chris Mattheisen, chief executive of Magyar Telekom, disputes this. Mr Saling could have stayed on as political editor, he says, but instead chose to leave by mutual agreement. Mr Lazar strongly denies that he was in any way connected to Mr Saling’s exit.

    Unease over freedom of expression has other sources, too. On June 11th parliament passed a new tax on advertising revenue, which media firms say would bankrupt them. The levy, which will rise, proportionally to income, to 40%, prompted a rare display of unity among Hungary’s partisan journalists.

    The two main daily newspapers both ran a blank page in protest before the law was passed. The new tax would “ruin the majority of media companies”, says the Hungarian Advertising Association. It will raise around 7 billion forint year, according to the association, half of which would come from RTL Klub, a commercial television station. The tax, says the station, is “an aggressive attempt to undermine the biggest media company of the country”.

    Such an outcome may not be unwelcome for the governing party, cynics argue. The closure of websites and commercial broadcast media would leave the field clear for state television and radio, which have been reduced to arms of the government’s propaganda machine. Statistics compiled by the State Media and Broadcast Authority show that government ministers and politicians from the ruling Fidesz party receive twice as much airtime as the opposition does on state television.

    Elsewhere, activists are also protesting over a raid by officials of the central budgetary authority on three NGOs that distribute funds from Norway. The raid follows the introduction of a government list of questionable NGOs and a row in which Mr Lazar accused Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s minister for EU affairs, of trying to influence Hungarian politics by funding NGOs connected to LMP, a small liberal party. That caused fury in Oslo, where the Hungarian ambassador to Norway was summoned to the foreign ministry. Hungary has no jurisdiction over the grants programme, said Mr Helgesen, who is “deeply concerned” by the Hungarian authorities’ “attempts to limit freedom of expression”.

    Hungarian officials claim there is no crackdown on civil society. “Civil-society organisations are free to apply for funding,” says Ferenc Kumin, a government spokesman. “But they have to work according to the rules and be transparent.”

    Being on the list is now a badge of pride. “We are very glad to be included,” said Tamas Bodoky of atlatszo.hu, a website for investigative journalism. “It would have been most embarrassing to be left out.” ”
    http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21604214-freedom-expression-under-threat-lazar-affair _