Orbán continues war against civil society Civil society organisations in Hungary seek support from the EU. Photo: Dorgo Zsuzsi/Greeneace

Orbán continues war against civil society

In the first major legislative moves since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won reelection this spring, the Hungarian Parliament on June 20 passed a package of measures that critics say is a continuation of Orbán’s efforts to weaken civil society and any other checks on his government’s control over life in Hungary.

The most direct attack on NGOs came from a new law that criminalizes the act of assisting – or even providing information to – refugees seeking political asylum. Another measure passed on June 20, a change to the Constitution that makes it easier for the government to control the judiciary, may eventually do even more damage to civil society and any efforts to protect human rights in Hungary. An additional alteration of the Constitution codifies the government’s refusal to accept refugees, and appears to be a challenge to the authority of the European Union.

“Orbán continues establishing his authoritarian political system at full speed by curbing judicial and academic independence, civil liberties and the rule of law,” said a statement from Political Capital, a Hungarian think tank. “Right now, he is turning towards institutions that still enjoy some autonomy.”

The long-anticipated law targeting NGOs that help migrants was apparently rushed to passage against the wishes of the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters. The Venice Commission had been asked to investigate an earlier proposal of the law, and they requested that the Hungarian Parliament wait until their report was ready before voting on the law. Instead, Parliament made a few alterations to the law and approved it days before the Venice Commission could release their report. Ultimately, the Venice Commission found that the law as it was passed goes against European norms, most notably by making it illegal to advise asylum seekers.

“Criminalizing such activities disrupts assistance to victims by NGOs, disproportionally restricting their rights as guaranteed under Article 11, and under international law. Furthermore, criminalizing advocacy and campaigning activities – under the new provision – constitutes illegitimate interference with freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 10,” the Venice Commission’s report found, according to a June 22 press release from the Council of Europe.

NGOs plan resistance

Hungarian civil society groups that assist refugees and asylum seekers have vowed to continue operating in the face of this challenge.

“The aim of this bill is basically to make our existence and our activities impossible,” said Aniko Bakonyi, Advocacy and Project Officer at the Refugee Programme of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, in an interview in late May. “What we are certain of is that we will continue” our activities.

This assertion was confirmed in a Helsinki Committee press release from June 20, the day the law was passed: “Just like in the past, we will firmly and expertly give protection to all of our clients, civil society organizations and human rights in Hungary,” said Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

Other groups plan to oppose the law. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU, also known as Tasz), published an article that said: “The organization is determined to use every means to ensure that activists and organizations providing humanitarian help and legal assistance, now threatened by prison, will be able to continue their work.”

The HCLU’s director of programs, Máté Szabó, has said the Hungarian government’s consistent efforts to legally control civil society, the media and other pillars of democracy are part of a drive to control all facets of Hungarian society. “The government doesn’t like anything that is not under their control,” he said.

Courts lose independence

The HCLU does much of its work in the courts, legally representing parties who are fighting for human rights, and sometimes purposefully seeking to be prosecuted themselves as a way to fight unjust laws.

“We have much more remedies if we do not comply with the law in the proceedings to be initiated against us,” Szabó explained during an interview in March. At the time, he added that his organization had success fighting bad Hungarian laws in both international and domestic courts, but the June 20 legislation apparently removes the protective power of courts in Hungary. The new law creates an Administrative Court that will be staffed politically and has higher powers than any other courts in Hungary.

In a June 15 report reviewing the changes that were planned, and ultimately passed on June 20, the Helsinki Committee said: “A new court that may be dominated by judges arriving from the state’s public administration will rule on cases involving elections, taxes and public procurement, among many other key issues. Its head will be a political appointee selected by Parliament. Unless European institutions challenge the Hungarian government’s campaign of centralizing power over the judiciary, the rule of law will be deeply undermined.”

A challenge to Europe

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party voted to weaken NGOs and the judiciary. Photo: Wikimedia

It is not clear that European institutions will be any more successful at checking Orbán’s power than Hungarian institutions have been.

The judiciary seems to have been the last domestic obstacle to Orbán’s control over Hungarian society. When his Fidesz party was elected with a two-thirds Parliamentary majority in 2010, their first order of business was to pass a package of media laws that began the work of reining in independent media. The party has also taken on civil society, with this latest measure and with campaigns targeting NGOs receiving support from the government of Norway and philanthropist George Soros. Fidesz’s drive to silence criticism and independent thought in academia has included a move to strip accreditation from Central European University and an effort to control the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

With the Constitutional change made on June 20 that outlaws “settling foreign populations” in Hungary, the government sends a clear message that it will reject interference in its authority from external forces, like the EU. In response to the migration crisis that peaked in 2015, EU leaders have been saying that each EU country may be asked to take a certain number of refugees. But Orbán, who often favors anti-Muslim rhetoric and who has styled himself as a protector of Christianity in Hungary, has said he will refuse to take any refugees.

According to the analysis from Political Capital: “Orbán uses the topic of migration as a pretext to gain credit and form new alliances in the EU but his main goal is to secure his authoritarian rule in Hungary and become an influential player at the EU level.”

With the latest blows to civil society and the judiciary, it would appear that Orbán is getting every closer to his goal.

More BlueLink stories about pressure against CSOs in Hungary

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This journalistic article was published as a part of the project “Remembering Europe: Civil Society Under Pressure Again”, implemented by the BlueLink Foundation with co-funding from the EU’s Europe for Citizens Programme. No responsibility for the content of this articice could in any way be attributed to the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency and the European Commission. All responsibility for the content lies with the BlueLink Foundation.