European Commission brings Hungary to court over NGO law

(CIVICUS Monitor)

The European Commission is taking Hungary to the Court of Justice because of the government’s failure to address concerns related to a new NGO law introduced in June 2017. This step is the culmination of a legal action reported in the previous CIVICUS Monitor update on Hungary. On 7th December, the Commission issued a press release confirming the move which follows repeated communications to the government over the law and its restrictions on Hungarian NGOs receiving foreign funds. The Commission further stated that:

“…Hungary violates the right to freedom of association and the rights to protection of private life and personal data enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, read in conjunction with the EU Treaty provisions on the free movement of capital”.

The Commission is also referring Hungary to the Court of Justice over its Higher Education Law introduced in April 2017, which it says “disproportionately restricts” the operations of EU and non-EU universities in Hungary. These moves follow years of disputes between the government of Viktor Orban, the Commission and Hungarian civil society organisations which have been defamed for their connection to international organisations and philanthropists, including Open Society Foundations founder George Soros.

Meanwhile, groups in Hungary continue efforts to have the NGO law scrapped. In November 2017, Hungary’s High Court gave the green light on a referendum initiative to withdraw the law which imposes restrictions on the receipt of foreign funding by NGOs. The attempt at securing a referendum was initiated by a private citizen affiliated with a new political party, Momentum. While many Hungarian civil society organisations agree with Momentum’s opposition to the law, they disagree with taking the issue to the public via referendum.

Civil society instead believes that the law, which the sector considers a violation of the fundamental freedom of association, should be reviewed by a competent judicial body. In line with this approach, twenty-three Hungarian NGOs filed a complaint against the NGO law with the Constitutional Court. This detailed complaint calls on the court to invalidate the law in its entirety as it constitutes a clear violation of the freedom of association as protected by article 8 of Hungary’s constitution.

Although the law has been in force since mid-2017, to date the prosecutor’s office has not taken any action against those NGOs that publicly announced that they would not comply with it. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, however, has reported that in early November 2017, the youth chapter of one of the governing coalition parties announced that it would report on NGOs refusing to register with the prosecutor’s office.

In a positive development, on 4th December 2017 the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) received a rare apology from the ruling Fidesz party for its defamatory statement about the organisation in 2015. The apology, which was only made following additional legal efforts by HHC, concerned allegations made by Fidesz to the effect that HCC was carrying out the “political orders of international speculative financial capital” and falsifying statistics related to the origins of refugees and migrants arriving in Hungary. A court had earlier ruled in HHC’s favour and awarded it one million Hungarian Forint (3,750 USD) in damages.

Original article on CIVICUS Monitor

Featured image by Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images