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Tens of thousands protest for NGOs, CEU

Tens of thousands of demonstrators - fewer than the estimated 80,000 the preceding Sunday - gathered on the streets once again on Wednesday, showing support for Hungarian NGOs pressured by a recent draft bill submitted to Parliament, as well as protesting against the “lex CEU” amendment of higher education law. Another major demo is scheduled for Saturday.

Yesterdayʼs demonstration at Heroesʼ Square. (Photo: MTI/Zoltán Balogh)

The Wednesday demonstration was the third big protest to draw tens of thousands of people to the streets of Budapest in just four days, following a major march on Sunday and a smaller impromptu gathering on Monday night, according to Hungarian online news portal index.hu. The organized demonstration was held on Heroesʼ Square, which was almost full as can be seen in the image posted in this article.

Although protesters vowed continued support for the Central European University - which claims the recent amendment to Act CCIV of 2011 on National Higher Education could force the institution to close, although the Hungarian government insists it is only “closing loopholes” and enhances transparency - the main focus of yesterday’s demonstration was a recently drafted law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Under the law, which is expected to be voted on in May, NGOs that receive more than HUF 7.2 million financial support from abroad annually should be registered as “foreign-supported organizations.” NGOs fear this would 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.

“A new draft law that targets the funding of independent civil society groups in Hungary marks another step towards silencing the critical voices that are an essential element of any robust democracy,” the Open Society Foundations - the network founded by Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros to support civil society groups around the world - said in a press statement that the Budapest Business Journal has acquired.

“This law is clearly a thinly veiled political bid to put pressure on critical voices in a time of growing authoritarianism. This law attacks the people who have helped citizens challenge corruption and arbitrary power, who have stood up for free and independent media and for open debate. The notion that any of this represents a threat to national security is patently absurd,” Goran Buldioski, director of the Open Society Foundations in Europe, said in the statement.

Demo ends, ‘after-party’ starts

Once the official demonstration in support of NGOs had concluded, demonstrators marched through the heart of the capital, protesting against the current government. Hungarian online news portal hvg.hu reported that the demonstration turned into a “huge night after-party,” noting that an ad-hoc “techno party” was held at Oktogon.

A mass of people marched to the headquarters of governing party Fidesz on Lendvay utca, where they chanted slogans expressing their disagreement with the policies of Fidesz. Although demonstrators were faced with a wall of police officers who now and then called on the crowd to disperse as they were committing a “breach of law,” the protest remained peaceful, despite minor scuffles in the first rows, according to reports.

Demonstrators then marched to Kossuth tér, in front of the Parliament building, where they faced a wall of police officers once again. According to reports, some protesters handed over tulips to the police officers defending the building.

Later the crowd joined the “techno party” at Oktogon. Hungarian on-site reports described the event as a street party that did not want to end.

Another demo planned for Saturday

The next demonstration was also announced at Heroesʼ Square yesterday. It will be held on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square), and is entitled “Nem maradunk csendben!” (We won’t stay silent!) according to the Facebook page for the event. Organizers are hoping for this demonstration to be “the loudest so far.”

Reasons cited on the Facebook page for not remaining silent include the Hungarian government’s efforts “to silence the masses standing up for democratic values,” and “to squash every initiative that questions their obvious lies.” It adds that “following the destruction of the free press, now it is the turn of free education and organizations which are not afraid to stand up for their and others’ rights,” and criticizes a government which it says “systematically demolishes communities and forums where freedom is more important than battles with phantoms.”

The organizers conclude by saying that they want to show that a whole country cannot be silenced, and promise more details and information on the event to follow.