Talking Justice: Civil Society Under Attack

Independent civil society groups play a vital role in any flourishing democracy—giving voice to citizens’ rights, speaking up for minorities, and holding governments to account. But civil society groups in many countries around the world are under attack—with governments in some cases taking steps to cut off international funding for their activities.

This edition of Talking Justice starts in Hungary, where the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban is targeting independent human rights groups and others that he says are working against the national interest. Host Jim Goldston talks to Marta Pardavi, cochair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group that has been targeted by the government for challenging its actions before the European Court of Human Rights.

We also hear from Saskia Brechenmacher, an associate fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, who talks about the global challenge to civil society, and her new report, Civil Society under Assault: Repression and Response in Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia.

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Show transcript 


Hello, I'm Jim Goldston, welcoming you to this month's edition of Talking Justice, a podcast from the Open Society Foundations that focuses on stories of law, justice and human rights from around the world. This month, we start in Hungary.


Over the past few weeks, we've seen protests on the streets of the Hungarian capital, Budapest, in response to two recent moves by the government of prime minister Viktor Orban. First, in early April, came a sudden change in the education law, which threatens the future of Budapest's U.S.-certified Central European University, or CEU. Then within days, came a new bill, that if adopted, would impose new discriminatory conditions on nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from foreign donors.

You may know that CEU was founded by a grant from the Hungarian-born billionaire, George Soros, who's also, of course, the founder and chairman of the Open Society Foundations. OSF is one of the largest funders of human rights groups worldwide, including many of the NGOs targeted by the second Hungarian law.

But attacks on NGOs are not a provincial concern of OSF. For civil society plays a critical role in the defense of democracy, and is central to the idea of a government that is accountable to its people. So, civil society's health should be of concern to all. Nowhere more so than in Hungary, a country which following the fall of the Berlin Wall, was seen as a source of hope in a post-communist age. And yet, in recent weeks, this government-sponsored ad has been running on Hungarian television.



According to the 30-second spot, Brussels bureaucrats are demanding that Hungary change its migration policy. Even worse, an unnamed, non-governmental organization, backed by George Soros, is doing Brussels' bidding by launching lawsuits. “It's time to stand up for Hungary," says the ad. “It's time to stop Brussels.” So, what's all this? Here's my colleague, Jonathan Birchall, who's been doing some research.


Well, Jim, Stop Brussels is the title of a so-called national consultation being organized this spring by the Hungarian government. Now, every Hungarian household has received a copy of a questionnaire that addresses not only Hungary's relations with Brussels in the European Union, but also with the Hungarian NGOs that have grown up in Hungary after the fall of Communism in 1989.

The questions are, well, not exactly open. Consider question number four, for example, which states, "There are more and more foreign-supported organizations operating in Hungary with the aim of interfering in our country's internal affairs in a non-transparent way. The operation of these organizations could jeopardize our independence," says the questionnaire. "What do you think Hungary should do?" And there's two options. Option A: require them to register and reveal information about on behalf of which country or organization they carry out their activities and what their objectives are. And option B: we should let them continue their risky activities without supervision.


Well, I imagine very few people are going to go for option B.


Let's talk now to someone who's directly affected by the darkening political climate. Marta Pardavi is co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki committee, a Budapest-based human rights group that has successfully challenged Hungarian government policies before the European court of human rights.


Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki committee, welcome to Talking Justice.


Hello. Thank you for inviting me.


So Marta, why is the requirement that NGOs publish and disclose their sources of foreign funding objectionable given that in so many democracies, citizens rightly expect to know the sources of funding for candidates, political parties. Why should that not be true for NGOs as well?


We agree with the idea of transparency. Not only do we agree with it, but Hungarian civil society organizations do already publish very detailed information about what they do and which funding sources they rely on to carry out their activity. So, this information is already in the public domain.

In terms of transparency, the law will not bring any new information forward. There's no added value of it in this sense. What it requires of NGOs is to register themselves to be listed, to be listed as foreign funding. Foreign funding, according to the bill, the preamble and the reasoning of it, is something that is suspicious. And the argument put forward in the bill's reasoning focuses on the national security interests and the fight against terrorism, financing of terrorism and money laundering, which are all legitimate aims.

But they shouldn't be–they cannot be–legitimately pursued through this particular piece of legislation. So, we think the transparency requirement is legitimate, but everything is already in place. But what this bill does is it discriminates, singles out, certain types of organizations among many who would have an influence on public opinion. And who, without any specific risk assessment, are labeled as some sort of organizations that carry out suspicious activity.

None of the ongoing legislative efforts or laws in place in Hungary require other actors in the economy or in public life to register as foreign funded. So, this particularly targets those NGOs that rely on foreign sponsors, where the funding sources are not something that the Hungarian government has an influence over.


The government is doing this presumably because it's politically popular, believes that its constituents support cracking down on NGOs. Is that right? And if so, why is that? Why are NGOs no longer popular in Hungary?


I don't think that the Hungarian population is really supportive of this idea. I think it's very telling that the most recent opinion polls have shown that when individuals were specifically asked if NGOs pose a problem or if they contribute to society, I think the majority of responders to these surveys have always said that NGOs are very important. They fulfill a role that many times the Hungarian state is unwilling or unable to fulfill.

So the civil society is an important resource and it's an important platform to seek help from. But because of the distorted media landscape in Hungary, the Hungarian government's propaganda campaign against foreign-funded NGOs is reaching a lot of people who might not even have an idea of what a civil society organization does.


And you mentioned the issue of migration, which of course is very high on the agenda in a number of European countries. And my understanding is that one of the accusations of some government officials is that some NGOs are involved in actually fomenting illegal immigration. The Hungarian-Helsinki committee for years has been one of the principal defenders of the rights of migrants in Hungary. How does that accusation affect your work?


We have been basically targeted on a daily basis now by the Hungarian government, which now runs television ads as part of its Let's Stop Brussels campaign where it says Brussels is trying to have vast numbers of illegal migrants settle in Hungary and some foreign-funded organizations–organizations funded from sources affiliated to George Soros–are complicit in this drive to have illegal migrants coming to Hungary.

So, the Hungarian government now runs video spots on national and commercial TV channels that single out the Helsinki Committee without actually naming us. But, also, we've seen many leading political figures speak out about how the Helsinki committee is interested in having migrants come to Hungary so we that we could actually capitalize on this by taking cases to court, which would give as an income from the legal fees.

I think this is horrendous. It's absolutely intolerable for a government and an E.U. member state to question the right of people to turn to courts if they have a human rights violation, and also to question the right of people to seek legal assistance and also lawyers to give assistance to their clients. It basically negates all the standards and the principles, which would characterize a democracy. But this is how the Hungarian government now lashes out at those few organizations which help people exercise their most basic human rights.


Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, thank you for joining us from Budapest today on Talking Justice.


Thank you.



As Marta was saying, the attacks on civil society groups in Hungary are not happening in isolation. And the phenomenon of governments introducing controls on independent and sometimes critical NGOs is not new. A report published this month by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace doesn't mince words. Titled, "Civil Society Under Assault," the study looks at what has happened to NGOs under three increasingly authoritarian governments: Russia, Ethiopia, and Egypt.

Joining me is the report's author, Saskia Brechenmacher, an associate fellow in Carnegie's Democracy and Rule of Law program. Saskia, welcome to Talking Justice.


Hi, thank you for having me.


Saskia, perhaps we can begin, if you could describe the scale of the problem here. Is civil society under threat in different parts of the world? And if so, how?


Yes, I think we can certainly say that there has been a worrisome trend of civil society organizations coming under attack in different parts of the world. It's not an entirely new trend. We saw governments starting to implement restrictions already in the mid-2000s, early 2000s. But back then initially it was thought that this was just a few, sort of outlier cases of a number of authoritarian governments or governments that had sort of moved toward democracy but were sliding back.


And you say this is something that is not limited to authoritarian governments, as it were, but is it also a problem in more democratic places as well?


Yeah, it is certainly not confined to one particular regime type. Although, it is most commonly seen in the hybrid political regime. So, countries that aren't really quite democratic and not fully authoritarian either, because in those types of places, governments feel most threatened by civic activists. Not entirely surprising, they've often weakened the opposition, weakened other government institutions. But civil society remains a fear where citizens can mobilize and potentially band together and in the types of civic uprisings that we saw in the Arab Spring, colorrevolution.

So, it tends to be those countries where governments are most threatened by civic activists. But we definitely have seen similar measures being taken in more democratic countries. India is a good example, a country that's often named as one of the biggest democracies in the world, and clearly has very long-standing democratic institutions even though they have shortcomings.

But over the past few years, we've seen the government taking measures to make it more difficult for NGOs to receive foreign funding, using a lot of the same rhetoric that you see in countries like Egypt or like Russia, for example, claiming that these types of foreign funding transfers constitute a threat to national security because they allow foreign powers to spread their interest in India. So you see a very similar discourse and some of the measures, even in democratic countries.


Well, if I can just pick up on that, don't those governments have a bit of a point? We've seen already in the United States, in Europe, in other countries, efforts by foreign governments to effect the integrity of democratic elections. So, don't governments have an interest in ensuring that they regulate properly financing of nongovernmental efforts in their own countries to protect the security of their country, to protect the integrity of processes there? Don't governments have an interest in at least regulating financial flows?


Yeah, I think that's an important point, and definitely an important question. Governments do have an interest in regulating financial flows and, obviously, they have an interest in ensuring transparency in the non-profit sector. But there are international best practices when it comes to that. How do you make sure that funding flows are somewhat regulated? How do you make sure that organizations reveal where their funding comes from? What types of funding institutions are funding what types of activities, et cetera?

And I think that is generally considered acceptable. However, I think it's important to distinguish between those type of regular transparency measures and types of regulatory restrictions that we do see in a number of countries, which tend to completely over regulate civil society.

So, you see, for example, sanctions that are completely out of proportion with the type offenses that organizations might commit. For example, threatening to completely dissolve organizations in cases of noncompliance. Or you see efforts to try and make organizations register with the government and provide monthly audits or bi-monthly audits, and those types of measures, which are generally considered too onerous when there actually already often regulations in place that ensure that organizations would reveal where their funding comes from on a yearly basis. So, I think the concern is not so much regulation, but it is overregulation that makes it difficult for organizations to operate.


Let me just pull back a second, if I may, to ask for you to reflect broader drivers of this phenomenon. You've said, to some extent, there's always been some restriction on civil society activities, but it's gotten much worse and affected a broader number of governments in recent years. Why is that? Why are we seeing this worsening trend?


I think there are multiple drivers. One driver is certainly the fact that democracy globally has somewhat stagnated over the past 10 to 15 years. We saw rapid expansion in the number of democratic countries in the 1990s. Since then, we've seen a largely either negative trend or simply stagnation. So as a result, you see greater number of these competitive authoritarian or semi-democratic governments that tend to be the ones who crack down on civic activists.

I think that several trends have exacerbated this. For one, as I mentioned earlier, the color Revolutions in the mid-2000s and then the Arab Spring, really, I think, came a shock to a lot of governments who felt fairly secure in their power and suddenly saw in their neighboring countries, citizens going on the streets and, in some ways, bringing down governments that were previous perceived to be quite safe.

And I think, often, governments interpreted these kinds of public uprisings in fairly due political terms. And they saw that foreign funded, civil society organizations had played a role. And maybe not organizing the protest, but certainly helping them grow and helping them spread their message. So, then, after the types of uprisings, you typically see preventive measures being taken in surrounding countries, with governments cracking down on freedom of association and assembly. And trying to restrict free media.

Perhaps another trend in more recent years is the fact that you’ve we've seen populist governments come into power in a number of places. And this sort of anti-civil society, anti-foreign funding rhetoric plays quite well into the general populist narrative, attempts to be quite skeptical of elites, and tends to be skeptical of internationalism and international cross-border political assistance. So, I think that's also contributed in a number of countries.

And then we've seen a general shift in power, I would say, compared to the 1990s when the western, liberal democratic model was simply seen as kind of the primary model that everybody else is moving toward. And since then, we've seen a shift in power to other regional and global actors who are in some ways much more assertive about promoting alternative model that doesn't necessarily fit liberal democratic ideals. But, instead, empathizes state sovereignty, for example. And empathizes the inter-collective ahead of individual interest. So I think that's also a contributor.


How effective do you think international donors, governmental or private, have been in pushing back against governments who over-restrict or crack down on the activates of civil society?


I think generally perhaps international donors and governments who are somewhat slow in recognizing the severity of the trend. But over the past several years, that has shifted. And I think nowadays, a lot of international wariness and increasing international tensions to the problem. Reponses, it's difficult to say. I think in some cases, they've been effective. When there has been a coordinated response, when, perhaps, the government in question wasn't quite as serious about the crackdown.

However, in general, I would say that in countries of governments were determined to crack down on civic activists or to restrict society, international pressure hasn't been very effective. And there are number of reasons for that. One is that in some countries, simply there are other countervailing political and economic interest that make it difficult for western governments that have traditionally been the main providers of civil society assistance.

To have a coordinated and some compressive policy because they do want to maintain positive collaboration or cooperative relationship with the governments in question in other issue areas. And that, in some cases, has resulted in very mixed messaging.

I think on the donor side, there have been efforts to, for example, adapt donor funding to make it more flexible, to have more short-term emergency grants, to invest in the protection of digital security of human rights activists, to provide non-financial means of support in very difficult environments. So, I think there has been some movement, although I think it's in an ongoing process.

But there still need for greater coordination among donors and governments. And there's also a greater need for involving other actors that aren't traditionally human rights donors. For example, more traditional development aid donors and humanitarian aid donors that maybe haven't really felt fully affected by the trend to date, but that are in fact crucial partners and actually pushing back in a more effective manner.


Saskia Brechenmacher, thank you so much for joining us today on Talking Justice.


Thank you. My pleasure.


That was Saskia Brechenmacher of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, author of a new report, Civil Society Under Assault, which you can download at Carnegie's website: For anyone who believes that independent civil society groups are a vital element of a robust democracy, these are difficult days.

Moving ahead, we'll be watching developments in Hungary and the many other countries where civil society is under threat. And as we do so, we'll keep in mind that the concept of civil society has been around for a couple of centuries. Today, civil society groups perform crucial functions: monitoring what government does, reporting on abuses where they happen, advocating for reform, and lending technical expertise to find solutions.

But to do those things well, civil society needs not just political space, but financial resources as well. In a 2013 report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Maina Kiai, then a U.N. special rapporteur warned that, "The ability to seek, receive and use funding, including foreign funding, is not just desirable, it's an integral part of the right to freedom of association."

Join me next month when we'll be looking at a court case in Paris, where the son of the dictatorial ruler of Equatorial Guinea is being tried for corruption in a case that has been years in the making. Until then, you've been listening to Talking Justice, with me, Jim Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. Goodbye.

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