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NGO law passed, TASZ plans civil disobedience

The Hungarian Parliament, thanks to the Fidesz-KDNP majority, passed a new law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) today, which is widely thought to attack civil society in Hungary and has been criticized by the European Commission. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) said it will apply civil disobedience.

Aerial view of a demonstration held in support of civil organizations on April 12, after the draft bill of the law passed today surfaced. (Photo: Attila Pethe)

The Law on the Transparency of Organizations Receiving Support from Abroad was passed by 130 MPs in favor, 44 MPs against, and 24 MPs abstaining.

Many say the new law clearly targets foreign-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as it states that NGOs that receive more than HUF 7.2 million annual financial support from abroad should be registered as “foreign-supported organizations.” NGOs have numerously voiced fears that this will lead to the alienation of their civil activities, as well as empowering the government to scrutinize their operations. At the same time, the government insists the law is only about ensuring transparency in the sector.

According to Hungarian online news portal index.hu, the law adopted today is very similar to legislation passed in Russia in 2012, under which such organizations must bear the epithet “foreign agent.” In its communications the Hungarian government has often referred to NGOs as “agent” organizations, while accusing them of serving the interests of 86-year-old Hungarian-born philanthropist and financier George Soros, whom the government has repeatedly attacked for meddling in Hungaryʼs affairs.

Passed despite criticism

On June 2, the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on the rule of law, published its preliminary opinion on the law governing NGOs accepting funding from abroad. While acknowledging that the legislation had “legitimate aims,” the commission took issue with the “excessive obligations” and “disproportionate sanctions” it contained.

Responding to the Vienna Commissionʼs concerns last week, Hungary’s government said it would amend the draft bill on a number of points. Critics, however, suggested the changes were cosmetic and that the new law stigmatizes civil organizations.

Earlier, the European Parliament approved a resolution on May 17 saying Hungary poses a “clear risk of a serious breach” of EU values by a Member State, citing the proposed NGO law among the primary concerns it said would justify the triggering of an Article 7 procedure against Hungary, which may result in sanctions on the country and even the suspension of its voting rights.

TASZ plans civil disobedience

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) said in a press statement issued directly after the law was passed that the legislation goes against the Fundamental Law (constitution) of Hungary. TASZ said it believes the best and most efficient action against the “unlawful” legislation is to apply civil disobedience, which means it will not act according to the law.

TASZ emphasized that by applying civil disobedience it will not violate anybodyʼs rights, nor will it act against transparency as its operations have remained transparent due to its finances being recorded publicly for years and made available online.

TASZ insisted that it is not violating any laws, but that the new law itself does. The organization added that should a procedure be launched against it for refusing to apply the newly adopted law, it will turn to the Constitutional Court of Hungary and the European Court of Human Rights.

Stefánia Kapronczay, executive director of TASZ, recently gave an exclusive interview to the Budapest Business Journal, saying she wants businesses to stand up for the rights of civil society, and pointing out that the legal changes the sector faces once the new bill comes into force could impact the support companies offer through CSR programs in Hungary.