Interview with Júlia Iván, Director of Amnesty International Hungary
On Tuesday, 13 June, Hungary’s National Assembly passed a law that requires NGOs which receive foreign funds above the annual threshold of 24000 EUR to register and label themselves as “foreign-funded organisations” on their websites and in their publications. The law also imposes sanctions in the event of non-compliance. This legislation has been criticised by the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, the UN and international NGO umbrella organisations. It was the target of a range of demonstrations in Hungary throughout the spring. Anna Frenyó interviewed Júlia Iván, director of Amnesty International Hungary.
Anna Frenyó: The NGO law requires “foreign-funded NGOs” to register as such and publicise the fact that they receive funding from abroad. What is the problem with this?
Júlia Iván: First, it leaves no choice for those concerned. They must register, even if they don’t agree with this law; otherwise, they can be fined up to almost € 3,000 or even be dissolved. Second, the label the government are forcing us to use sends out a very strange message to our clients, as if we were some kind of foreign agents working against the interests of the Hungarian state. This could frighten away our partners, or make state institutions such as the police refuse to cooperate with us.
Moreover, the law simply runs counter to data protection rights. The NGOs that fall under the law must publish a list of their donors. Now what if a foreign private donor does not want its name and address to be known by the Hungarian government? Especially in case of sensitive issues, such as drug prevention or LGBT rights, this can discourage private citizens from donating to these causes.
Is there a correlation between the law on foreign-funded NGOs and the Lex CEU, the legislation modifying the law on higher education, which threatens to put an end to the operations of the Central European University in Hungary?
If one listens to the government’s communication about both cases, the scapegoat is the same: it’s George Soros and his Open Society Foundations. They created the Central European University after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a space to foster critical thinking. The same foundation has been providing vital support to several Hungarian NGOs up to the present. Thus, the government have simply labelled members of civil society as “agents of Soros” or “Soros-slaves”.
These terms create allusions to boilerplate antisemitism.
It is coded antisemitism. They avoid saying he’s a Jewish businessman; rather, they call him a speculator or man of money, and criticise the fact that he’s liberal. It all began three years ago, when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán started praising states with so-called “illiberal democracies”. The main discrepancy is that most members of the FIDESZ government, including Orbán, were once liberals themselves, and started out their careers with generous university scholarships from Soros. In fact, FIDESZ was basically built up due to him.
So why are they so angry with Soros now?
He reminds them of the extreme cleavage between the politicians of FIDESZ in the early 90ies and now. Consider the fact that Orbán’s research topic as a student at Oxford in 1989, when he was on a Soros scholarship himself, was “The Idea of Civil Society in European Political Philosophy”! Soros’s objective is to build an open, inclusive society – which runs counter to the present ideology of FIDESZ, who cannot accept anyone who questions them.
The law on foreign-funded NGOs has been criticised by the Venice Commission for imposing excessive obligations and disproportionate sanctions. You have mentioned in previous statements that the law is discriminatory. In what way?
The work “foreigner” has become a negative term in current political communication. The underlying meaning of this label is “an enemy of our country”. However, not all Hungarian NGOs are obliged to be labelled as foreign-funded. Political parties, as well as religious, sport and minority associations are exempt from this requirement. If the aim of the law is to create transparency and control foreign influence on Hungarian society, exempting these types of organisations is complete nonsense.
Although the Lex CEU and the NGO law have been introduced in parallel, there seems to have been more international awareness of the first case.
Yes, although one can observe the same pattern in Russia: the closure of the University of Saint Petersburg and the government’s harassment of civil society went hand in hand. As for CEU, creating a law that makes the modus operandi of an existing university illegitimate is so absurd that it has easily attracted the support of the broad international scientific community. The NGO law, however, operates with terms that have intimidated many people from publicly criticising it. The legislation was presented as part of Hungary’s defence against money laundering, migration and terrorism. The government spokesperson suggested earlier this year that NGOs related to George Soros would call themselves human rights defenders and fraternise or cooperate with terrorists and human trafficking organisations. They launched a “national consultation” about threats to Hungary, including “illegal migration” and “attempts at foreign influence” based on claims that the Soros organisations were involved up to their necks in the “international migrant business”.
You have referred to the “Putinisation” of Hungary. What do you mean by this?
The oppression and rejection of everyone and everything that is different, be it ideology, skin colour or sexual orientation. People are afraid to express their opinion if it goes against that of the government. This is what Turkey and Russia are about, not the EU!
What is it exactly that bothers the government about NGOs such as Amnesty International or the Hungarian Helsinki Committee?
When groups of our lawyers express criticism over the government’s handling of issues such as the police, corruption and migration, the government have no arguments in response. This is why they’ve decided to use authoritarian methods to eliminate these critical voices.
Is there a list of NGOs that would be impacted by the law?
Only estimates. Currently, the law mandates that all NGOs which receive more than approximately € 23,400 per year from abroad are subject to the law. There are around 55,000 registered civic organisations in Hungary. Most of them receive much less, and many are passive. Around 700-800 would be impacted. Among them there are many NGOs that have nothing to do with politics, such as hospital or orphan foundations that don’t dare raise their voices now so as not to become part of the collateral damage of the government’s anti-Soros campaign.
The law does not consider EU funds as foreign funding though.
It includes funds that come directly from Brussels, even if they are EU funds.
Is there any direct communication between the civic organisations and the government regarding the law?
No. This is part of FIDESZ’s tactics, although FIDESZ has no real contact with almost any NGOs. The legislation was proposed by individual MPs. In this case, it is not obligatory to have an open consultation with civic organisations in the legislative process. The Ministry of Justice invited 10-15 civic organisations to a so-called “human rights round table”. We spoke with the parliamentary state secretary, Pál Völner, but it was without any substance. He cynically said that if we loved our work so much, we would persevere under even more difficult conditions.
This is a rather one-sided “democracy”. What are you planning to do now that the National Assembly has passed the law?
Now we can see that we need to continue our fight against this law, which in our view is clearly anti-democratic and unconstitutional. We have several avenues to follow: one option is to comply with the law, another is to reject it and there are ways to react in between by making a joke of the foreign label. All may be supplemented with legal actions, such as a constitutional complaint or turning to the European Court of Human Rights. If the law violates the free movement of capital – which, in my opinion, it does, although I’m not an expert on this area of EU law – then this raises the possibility that EU institutions will act as well. One thing is certain: we will stay and do our best to fight against this unlawful legislation.
What, in your opinion, is behind the timing of these new sanctions on civil society?
After the turmoil around the Norway Grants, the refugees and the quota, they needed a new enemy to defend the country from, especially since the general elections are coming up next year.
A total war against civil society is not unprecedented in the FIDESZ era.
Correct. Between 2013 and 2015, there were a series of allegations by high-ranking state officials, including the prime minister, that certain NGOs were closely linked to political parties and served “foreign interests”. Lists of NGOs allegedly “serving foreign interests” were published by government-friendly newspapers, suggesting that George Soros’s “crew” played an outstanding role in distributing money under the European Economic Area / Norway Grants NGO Fund. The Government Control Office launched an illegitimate state audit into the use of these funds and launched a criminal investigation of their consortium members, followed by a police raid of their offices and the suspension of their tax numbers. These proceedings were terminated without any criminal charges brought, however. But since the frontal attack hasn’t worked out, their recourse now is to place labels on human rights and watchdog NGOs, in order to eliminate the last resort of a critical society.
Thank you for the interview.