April 25, 2018 / 2:33 PM / a month ago

Civil organizations in Hungary brace for government crackdown on NGOs

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Non-governmental organizations in the crosshairs of Hungary’s rightwing government are seeking new funding sources and legal ways to counter a new law that would allow the interior minister to ban NGOs deemed to pose a “national security risk”.

FILE PHOTO: People attend a protest against the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, Hungary, April 21, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo/File Photo

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who won a third straight term in an election this month, has accused non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded by Budapest-born billionaire George Soros of political meddling and actively supporting migration.

The government says the “Stop Soros” bill, which would impose a 25 percent tax on foreign donations to NGOs that back migration, is meant to deter illegal immigration, which Orban says has been stoked in part by Soros. [nL8N1Q42F4]

But NGOs that could be affected by the law, once it is passed by parliament, which reconvenes on May 8, say the bill fits a pattern of cracking down on civil organizations over the past few years. They say it targets specific NGOs that Orban sees as unwanted critical voices.

“We are examining how the “Stop Soros” law could be legally attacked, as ... its current text (submitted to parliament) is not in line with the constitution, EU law and international legal norms,” said Stefania Kapronczay, executive director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, a human rights NGO.

“We will decide on what steps we take once we see the law passed in parliament.”

Last year Orban’s Fidesz party tightened regulations on foreign-funded NGOs, requiring them to register with authorities and publicly declare their foreign-funded status. The government said it wanted to ensure greater transparency, but NGOs said the change stigmatized them. [nL8N1J92R0]

FILE PHOTO: A man holds a Hungarian flag as he attends a protest against the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, Hungary, April 21, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo/File Photo

CLOSING LOOPHOLES

Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told website Index.hu on April 8, the day of Hungary’s election, that political activism by NGOs should be stopped.

“Those loopholes that still exist in the legal system that allow organizations not entitled to do so ... to meddle in political decision-making should be closed,” Kovacs said.

Fidesz politicians said the “Stop Soros” bill would be one of the first to be passed in the new parliament.

Last week, Soros’s Open Society Foundations (OSF) said it could leave Hungary if parliament passes the law. Today OSF funds independent journalism and supports NGOs. Recipients include the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which provides legal support to asylum seekers, among others.

The new law says NGOs that “sponsor, organize or support the entry or stay of third-country citizens on Hungarian territory via a safe third country in order to ensure international protection for them ... qualify as organizations supporting migration”.

Under the law, activists who organize or support migration could face restraining orders preventing them from approaching the EU’s external borders in Hungary.

FILE PHOTO: A man rides his moped past a government billboard displaying George Soros in monochrome next to a message urging Hungarians to take part in a national consultation about what it calls a plan by the Hungarian-born financier to settle a million migrants in Europe per year, in Szolnok, Hungary, October 2, 2017. Picture taken October 2, 2017. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo/File Photo

“‘Stop Soros’ will change our operational environment, it will seriously affect our operation in terms of licensing and the restraining order,” said Marta Pardavi, Helsinki Committee co-chair.

Pardavi said the law “shows a clear political intent” to hamper organizations which seek to make the government accountable.

NEW FUNDING SOURCES

NGOs that may be affected are seeking new funding sources.

Andras Kovats, director of the Hungarian Association for Migrants (Menedek), said they had been doing some contingency planning since the government in February suspended its tender under the European Union’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, which means funding for programs is uncertain now.

“The most important thing for us now is to plug the financing that we lose because of this suspension,” Kovats said. “As for “Stop Soros”... we do not know what impact that will have on our operation as there is still too much uncertainty.”

Transparency International, an anti-corruption NGO which gets about 13 percent of its financing from Soros’ OSF, says it does not expect to be impacted by the new law, as it is not dealing with refugees. But if all foreign donations were to be taxed, that would be a blow, said executive director Peter Jozsef Martin.

“This would... seriously affect our operation. Would it mean a staff cut? Almost certainly,” Martin said.

The Igazgyongy (Pearl) foundation, which helps impoverished children in eastern Hungary, also says it does not expect to be affected by the new law, but still plans to broaden its financial backing. Igazgyongy gets 10 percent of its money from the OSF in Hungary.

“What we are considering now is a strengthening of our strategy to collect donations... to make people and companies who sympathize with our work committed for the long term,” said Nora Ritok, head of Igazgyongy.

Additional reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Gareth Jones

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