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People protest in Heroes’ square against a new law that would undermine Central European University, a liberal graduate school of social sciences founded by U.S. financier George Soros in Budapest, Hungary, April 12, 2017.
© 2017 Reuters
Despite a chorus of international criticism, the Hungarian government has been in no hurry to act on a June 2020 EU Court decision that states a 2017 law forcing civil society organizations receiving more than 20.000 EUR per year in foreign funds to register as foreign-funded is unlawful.
This week, the government finally submitted a draft bill to parliament ostensibly to repeal the discriminatory law, which some likened to Russia’s Foreign Agents Act.
It would be a welcome move if it signaled a real change in attitude towards civil society groups by the Orban government. Unfortunately, such a change is far from evident.
The draft bill leaves untouched a controversial 2018 law criminalizing groups giving assistance to asylum seekers. Critical organizations in Hungary also continue to face smear campaigns from officials and pro-government media.
The ostensible purpose of the 2017 “Lex NGO” was to combat money laundering and protect Hungary’s political and economic interests from foreign influence. However, existing legislation already required organizations to be fully transparent and publish annual financial reports. The law has clearly served as another tactic to vilify, discredit, and obstruct the work of civil society organizations.
It is worrying that the draft legislation designed to scrap “Lex NGO” would require the national State Audit Office to conduct annual financial inspections of civil society organizations that report more than around 55.000 EUR. Sports, religious, and national minority organizations are excluded.
Using the State Audit Office, whose primary function is to monitor the use of public funds, to inspect organizations that do not receive public funds risks becoming a new method for authorities to continue demonizing and obstructing the work of civil society groups.
The European Commission, which rightly brought the case against the 2017 law to the EU Court of Justice, should press Hungary’s government to end discriminatory measures against NGOs and its campaign to discredit them, and acknowledge that independent civil society groups are a hallmark of a democratic society. Other EU member states should continue their scrutiny on Hungary until the government stops harassing civil society groups and instead respects their independence.