Hungarian NGO Law Cracks Down on Civil Society and Inches Closer to Authoritarianism

Human Rights First condemned the Hungarian parliament’s passage of a law that will stigmatize and severely restrict the ability of nongovernmental organizations to operate. Passed under the pretense of increasing transparency and combating the funding of terrorism, the new law is widely seen as another step in Prime Minister Orban’s self-declared effort to erode the rule of law and silence critics of the Hungarian government.

“By moving to silence community groups that work to expose corruption, promote the rule of law, and protect the vulnerable, Prime Minister Orban took yet another step today on the path toward Russian-style despotism,” said Human Rights First’s Rob Berschinski. “Orban’s plan is clear. He intends to undermine every potential check on his power, whether that be independent courts, a free media, strong educational institutions, or, in this case, non-profit groups that work to the benefit of Hungarian citizens. The only question now is, will the United States and Europe stand up to an authoritarian in their midst?”

In recent years the Hungarian government has targeted nearly 60 NGOs in an attempt to intimidate and harass dissidents through paralyzing tax investigations. In 2015, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst visited Hungary and urged the authorities not to undermine “peaceful and legitimate activities through criminal defamation and excessive administrative and financial pressure.” Today’s passage indicates that Orban’s government has chosen to ignore Forst’s recommendation in what will be a severe setback for civil society in Hungary.

The law closely resembles legislation passed in Russia in 2012 known as the “foreign agents” law, adding to growing concerns that the Kremlin’s influence is growing in Hungary. The label of “foreign agent” carries a debilitating stigma rooted in Cold War terminology, associated with foreign spies. Combined with the overbearing operational costs of complying with the law, many organizations in Russia have weighed the option of shutting down entirely rather than being labeled as foreign agents.

Human Rights First recently analyzed the government of Hungary’s attacks on civil society and overtures to Russia in its report No Society Without Civil Society: Orban, Putin, and Why the United States Should Resist Hungary’s Attack on NGOs. Human Rights First also recently released a fact sheet on the issue, Hungary: Eroding Democratic Institutions, Closing Space for Civil Society.

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