Constitutional Experts’ Report Underlines Threat to NGOs from Hungarian Draft Law

BUDAPEST—An expert analysis of Hungary’s proposed new law on NGO funding underlines the extent to which the draft law presents a threat to independent civil society organizations and violates international norms and standards, the Open Society Foundations said today.

An independent assessment of the law was issued on Friday, June 2, by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, a body of international legal experts advises the 47-member organization on constitutional and rule of law issues.   

Goran Buldioski, co-director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe, said: “The independent assessment of the experts of the Venice Commission underlines what Hungarian civil society groups have been saying: that this proposed law discriminates against and stigmatizes groups that receive any form of foreign support, in contravention of the international standards protecting freedom of expression, including those of Hungarian citizens.”

The Hungarian parliament postponed its vote on the new law, introduced by members of the ruling Fidesz Party, until June 12, in order to take into account the views of the Venice Commission. Unusually, the Commission made public its preliminary opinion, prepared by three leading European human jurists, before it is approved by the full Commission on June 16, because of the public interest in the law.

In its 17-page opinion, the Commission found that several provisions of the draft law appear to violate Council of Europe standards. It noted that “while on paper certain provisions requiring transparency of foreign funding may appear to be in line with the standards, the context surrounding the adoption of the relevant law and specifically a virulent campaign by some state authorities against civil society organizations receiving foreign funding” renders the provisions problematic.

In particular the Commission:

  • urged the dropping of the demand that any organization receiving more than 7.2 million HUF (€24,000) in foreign support annually publish this fact on all its press products and publications. Requiring the organization to “constantly repeat” that it receives foreign funding might “further strengthen the impression that receiving foreign funding is considered as an a priori suspicious activity that has to be closely monitored all the time.”
  • highlighted the discriminatory nature of the law, because it currently excludes sports and religious organizations and those that do not qualify as civil society organizations (such as political parties, their foundations, and trade unions). The Commission found these exceptions to be potentially discriminatory and thus recommended that they should either be justified or deleted.
  • concluded that a requirement for groups to publicly list all their donors – no matter how small – to be posted on a Ministry of Interior website was “excessive” and unnecessarily intrusive into the right to privacy, given that small donors “can hardly have any major influence on the relevant organization.”
  • called for the removal of the threat to dissolve any organization that does not comply with “its obligations” under the law, using a “simplified cancellation proceeding” that fails to offer due process guarantees. The Commission stated that dissolution should be reserved for serious misconduct, such as money laundering or terrorism financing.”

The Commission also noted that the government arranged only one meeting to discuss the draft law, to which only a handful of NGOs and only ones engaged in protecting human rights, were invited. The Commission recommended that a “public consultation concerning the Draft Law should be conducted” and that it “should involve, as far as possible, all civil society organisations … [that would be] affected as a result of the entry into force of this legislation.”

In assessing the overall findings of the Venice Commission, Buldioski noted: “If all the Commission’s recommendations were followed, then there would be no law left for MPs to vote on. Therefore we urge all members of the Hungarian Parliament to follow the Commission’s recommendations and effectively reject this draft. Should they deem it necessary, Parliament could start a new process in line with democratic standards.”

The Venice Commission’s opinion follows criticism of the proposed NGO law from the European Parliament and the European Commission, which have expressed concerns about its compatibility with European Union law and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The Open Society Foundations have been the largest foreign funder of Hungarian civil society groups since the collapse of Communism in the country in 1989, providing over $400m in funding. In 2016, it worked with a range of other international private and government donors to fund 46 Hungarian groups working on issue ranging from promoting independent journalism, and fighting corruption, to combatting discrimination and community organizing.

Internationally, the Foundations are one of the largest private funders of hundreds of civil society groups around the world that promote equality and justice, freedom of expression, and transparent and accountable government.