Balázs Tóth is head of the Law Enforcement Program at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a public benefit human rights organisation that provides legal help to refugees, detainees and victims of law enforcement violence. Kristóf Szombati met with Balázs, who has been working for the organisation since 2004, to discuss the challenges faced by civil society organisations in Hungary.
The discussion was prompted by news that the government will be introducing legislation that will require NGO leaders to declare their personal assets and will possibly categorise civil society organisations that receive more than half of their funding from abroad as “foreign-backed”. The prime minister defended the initiative by arguing that external attempts to influence national politics have become much more frequent than before. His argument was backed up by official government and pro-government media.
While the government’s spokesperson accused human rights organisations of conspiring with terrorists, the Hungarian Times daily disclosed that Hungary’s civilian intelligence agency would soon publish elements of an investigation into George Soros’ efforts to expand his influence in Hungary through the NGOs he supports. This effort to smear and rein in civil society organisations follows an earlier attack against the Norwegian government and the foundations which had been charged with distributing the Norwegian Fund’s grants aimed at supporting and developing Hungarian civil society in 2014.
Kristóf Szombati: I’d first like to ask you about your personal experience. As a long-time associate of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee you’ve had the opportunity to closely follow the transformation of the NGOs that have sought to play a watchdog role in Hungary. What would you highlight as the key challenges that these organisations face today?
Balázs Tóth: The biggest challenge is that besides the normal tasks we’ve been carrying out in recent decades, such as research and analysis or strategic litigation, we now have to face something that is completely new for us: government-orchestrated disparagement campaigns. While the novelty of the terrain is itself a problem, this is made worse by the fact that the extra workload that is required to combat government attacks falls on the shoulders of the most overburdened organisations.
The third factor I’d like to highlight is that we’ve received a lot of threats from citizens via telephone, email and Facebook, and this has been the source of considerable psychological stress. You can imagine that it’s not so easy for our colleagues to come to terms with this.
How have these challenges evolved over time? Would you agree that 2004 (the year of Hungary’s accession to the EU, editor’s note) and 2010 (the year Fidesz gained a parliamentary supermajority, editor’s note) are milestones or watersheds for these NGOs?
I don’t see these two years as milestones. Accession to the European Union didn’t bring major changes in the lives of civil society organisations, although the harmonisation of legal standards did open up new opportunities for us. For instance, the law on equal treatment gave us the right to launch public-interest litigation cases.
At the same time, European funds have come to play an important role in financing the operations of larger organisations, including the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. In this regard, the European Union, an actor which isn’t subservient to the Hungarian state, serves as a guarantor of the sustainability of civil society. As for the second date, the timeline we’ve compiled of the attacks against civil society shows that the major milestone was actually 2013.
Journalists and political commentators who followed Fidesz’s latest attack against NGOs have highlighted three separate goals that the ruling party may be pursuing: 1) disrupting the work of key NGOs through bureaucratic overload and intimidation; 2) delegitimising watchdogs and independent critics in the eyes of the public; 3) reinforcing the commitment and cohesion of Fidesz’s core supporters. What do you yourself see as the strategic goal(s) of the ruling party in relation to watchdog organisations and, more generally, in relation to civil society?
I think that the government is striving to discredit our work and to create an image of the internal enemy. I see bureaucratic overload as a form of collateral damage, which nevertheless undermines the efficiency of civil society organisations. The government’s final strategic goal is, I believe, to prevent the emergence of credible critical voices in the public sphere. What we are seeing is a deliberate effort to undermine pluralism in Hungary.
Would you agree with the statement that the ruling party has achieved its key aims?
No, to the extent that watchdog organisations are still functioning and making their voices heard. The extra attention that is a by-product of government attacks gives us the opportunity to explain what we are really doing and why we are doing it. If the aim was to destroy our financial foundations then this has also backfired. In 2016, the Helsinki Committee received the largest amount of private donations ever. From another perspective, however, the ruling party has achieved its key objective by portraying us as unpatriotic actors seeking to undermine the public good. In the post-truth politics that is characteristic of the times, a large number of citizens have unfortunately come to mistake truth for lies.
Do you think that this latest attack has the same goal(s) as the previous one against the Ökotárs Foundation?
Yes, I do in fact see this new attack as part of the same government game. The only difference I see is one of tone. It’s the first time we’ve heard a representative of the government talk about the need to “sweep certain organisations out of the country”. It’s also new for us to hear that we are friends of terrorists. It’s important to note that the first statement came out of the mouth of Fidesz’s vice-president, and that the second was uttered by the government’s spokesperson.
Have major news stories such as the manipulation of the American election by leaking certain information to WikiLeaks in your opinion made such long-established NGOs as the Helsinki Committee more vulnerable to the critique of being vehicles for foreign interests? In other words, do you see a legitimacy issue looming on the horizon?
If we look at the facts, then my answer is no. First, the majority of civil society organisations isn’t funded by foreign donors. Second, the foreign donations we receive and the activities they support are fully transparent. I hope this will convince people that we are indeed far away from the games of intelligence services. I’d also like to stress that international law protects the civil society organisations’ right to receive financial support from both domestic and foreign sources. Nevertheless, I’m fully aware that in a situation where political communication has been significantly distorted, it’s possible to interpret the fact that an organisation receives funding from abroad and formulates a critique of those in power as anti-government political activity.
This insidious interpretation conceals a number of important facts. First, the organisations in question have sought to hold each and every government accountable. Second, the assertions they formulate have persistently been backed up by international law or rulings by independent public courts. Third, these organisations don’t have political power and don’t spend public money. Finally, in Eastern Europe private funding is rather the exception than the norm, and the state has full oversight over the funds that civil society organisations receive.
How do you think civil society should respond to a likely increase in government efforts to tighten the screws on watchdogs?
What is absolutely certain is that we still need to learn a lot about effective communication in a political space that is foreign to us. I also think it’s advisable to implement a number of precautionary measures in order to strengthen civil society organisations’ lines of defence. For example, I’d advise NGOs to request an independent audit of their management and activities in order to defend themselves against attacks. But I’d warn against falling into the trap of a total rethink. In essence, everyone should keep doing what they’ve been doing. We shouldn’t let ourselves be distracted by political propaganda. One shouldn’t forget that civil society organisations exist to defend citizens, not themselves. That should remain our priority.
Do you see a need to modify or rethink key elements of civil society organisations’ strategy in light of President Trump’s intention to “put America first” and the EU’s rather flimsy record in upholding fundamental values?
In relation to Trump, I’d like to say that the instruments which we human rights organisations use are primarily of a legal nature. As organisations operating in Europe, we are dependent on European law and institutions. Because of this, I don’t think Trump’s policies will have a direct bearing on our work. Nevertheless, I’m aware of changes in the norms governing political communication, which have been summed up as “post-truth” politics. I also see that a rapprochement between Trump and Putin may force us to rethink our communication strategy. But, to be frank, I don’t yet see in what way exactly.
In light of what we’ve discussed so far, do you see a need to create supranational instruments to defend civil society against the state? The conservative and liberal groups in the European Parliament (EPP and ALDE, editor’s note) recently signed an agreement in which they commit themselves to establishing a “new EU mechanism on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights”, and to asking the Commission for a legislative proposal. Do you think this mechanism would effectively deter governments from clamping down on watchdogs in Hungary and other EU member states?
I’m quite sceptical of such efforts. The European Union hasn’t done much to curb the Orbán government’s efforts to destroy the foundations of liberal democracy. I cannot really see how that would change in the future, especially given the enormous challenges that Europe is facing, including Brexit, the refugee crisis and the Trump presidency.
But let me be more concrete. First of all, I think the legitimacy of a mechanism that has to be enforced by an international organisation would be highly questionable in a political atmosphere infused with nationalist and anti-Brussels sentiment. Second, there’s an inherent problem in the fact that the EU is not a federal entity and therefore doesn’t possess a constitutional court, which could determine a breach of the norms enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Two examples will suffice to underpin this point. The EU couldn’t do anything against the dismissal of government officials without justification despite the fact that the Charter clearly forbids this, as a previous ruling by the Luxembourg court (the Court of Justice of the European Union, editor’s note) had made clear. Nor was the EU able to criticise the law that stipulated the forced retirement of judges based purely on rule-of-law concerns. The only reason we managed to force the government to backtrack on this measure was that it was clearly discriminatory, and we could therefore rely on the 78/2000EC equality framework directive to attack it.
If we were to go one by one through all the key institutional reforms implemented in Hungary since 2010, from the packing of the Media Council and the Constitutional Court with political appointees to the rewriting of the procedure governing parliamentary legislation, the inefficiency of EU rights enforcement would become abundantly clear.
Finally, it’s important to see that the European People’s Party has done nothing to rein in Fidesz. This makes me sceptical that political instruments can be useful, especially in light of my first point. We have every reason to believe that the new Rule of Law Framework will also be subjected to politicking, which we have no way to influence.
Thank you for your time.
The interview was conducted by Kristóf Szombati in Budapest in late January 2017 and is part of our Dossier: Focus on Hungary.
 Szilárd Németh, vice-president of FIDESZ, on a press conference on 10.1.2017