Hungary’s law calls for more transparency for NGOs receiving foreign money

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Demonstrators protest against the amendment of the higher education law seen by many as an action aiming at the closure of the Central European University, founded by Hungarian born American billionaire businessman George Soros. Budapest, 09 April. [Janos Marjai/EPA]

In a recent interview, the director of the George Soros-funded European Policy Institute makes the incorrect claim that Hungary’s new legislation on NGO transparency is “discriminatory” and is closing the space for dissenting opinions, writes Zoltán Kovács.

Zoltán Kovács is a Hungarian historian and politician, who currently serves as Government Spokesperson in the Cabinet Office of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

“The NGO law,” writes Euractiv’s interviewer, not exactly asking a question, “was thus apparently passed to keep Hungary’s government from criticism.”

In fact, that’s not why the law was passed. Anyone genuinely plugged into the daily discourse of Hungary’s public life knows full well that we enjoy a lively debate in the press and in the public square. In fact, Hungary’s new NGO legislation simply requires civic groups that receive funding from abroad to make that fact completely transparent to the public. That’s all.

“Hungarian citizens must be given the right to know about all public actors, who they are and who pays them. We have the right to know,” said Prime Minister Orbán, summarising the basic aim of the new law.

And that’s a “legitimate aim,” according to the Venice Commission, an official body of constitutional lawyers at the Council of Europe. The government of Hungary asked the Venice Commission to issue an opinion on the draft legislation before it went before Parliament for a vote, and what they said was quite clear:

“[E]nsuring transparency of NGOs receiving funding from abroad in order to prevent them from being misused for foreign political goals,” the Commission wrote, citing an earlier opinion, “pursues a prima facie legitimate aim and can be considered to be ‘necessary in a democratic society in the interest of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others’”.

Germany voices 'great concern' over Hungarian NGO law

Germany voiced “great concern” yesterday (14 June) over Hungary’s crackdown on foreign-backed civil society groups approved by parliament the previous day. In the meantime the Commission said it will “carefully analyse it”.

It is “legitimate for States to monitor, in the general interest”, the Commission said, “who the main sponsors of civil society organizations are”.

The Hungarian law addresses a growing concern among many western democracies that have seen foreign political or economic interests attempt to exploit vehicles like non-governmental organisations, because of the legitimacy that they seem to offer, to influence public discourse and decision-making.

These democracies typically forbid political parties from receiving foreign funding. We think of civic organizations as integral parts of any democracy, but the line needs to be drawn between groups supported at home and large-scale international networks that disguise themselves as ‘civilian’ to promote a clearly political agenda. The law does nothing to prevent them neither from operating nor from continuing to receive foreign support.

Critics like the Open Society director in this interview like to compare Hungary’s legislation to similar measures introduced in countries “like Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey”. Their list is short and selective. A more candid account could cite other examples from the United States and Israel. The Hungarian law, unlike the one in the United States, proposes lighter reporting requirements. Unlike a proposal in the European Parliament, it does not consider taking away public funding from these NGOs. Canada, too, is considering similar measures following reports that “foreign money funnelled towards Canadian political advocacy groups affected the outcome of the 2015 federal election”.

To the claim we read in the interview that the law “restricts the free movement of capital” in the common European market: that’s a ridiculous argument. The law does nothing that could restrict the movement of capital.

It is entirely legitimate, according to the Venice Commission, for a democracy to require transparency of NGOs receiving funding from abroad. Hungary’s law, like that of many other western democracies, says it is not legitimate for foreign interests – with no democratic mandate nor accountability to the citizens – to meddle in ways that are not transparent in our politics and public life.

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