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People in Budapest protest a draft law targeting Central European University, Hungary, April 2, 2017 © Lydia Gall/HRW

(Budapest) – Hungary’s president should reject a law on foreign higher education institutions that threatens the future of some independent universities, in particular Central European University (CEU), Human Rights Watch said today. Hungary’s Parliament approved the law on April 4, 2017, less than a week after it was published.

“The law endangers academic freedom and the future of CEU, which has educated a generation of leaders in Central and Eastern Europe,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The president should not sign a law that seems motivated by a desire to silence critical voices in Hungary.”

The law comes amid a wave of government criticism of independent groups and institutions in Hungary. It particularly targets those, like CEU, that have received funding linked to George Soros.

The law presented by the government on March 28, requires universities registered outside Hungary to have their operations approved though a “contract” between the Hungarian government and the university’s state of origin, in the case of CEU between Hungary and the relevant United States authorities. It also requires the university to establish a campus in the country in which it is registered, which in CEU’s case will mean opening a new campus in the US. The law will reinstate work permit requirements for non-EU citizen university staff teaching at the campus in Hungary, a requirement currently waived for CEU. These changes will impose significant costs that could jeopardize the university’s continued operation.

Some of the provisions appear to be directed at CEU specifically, including the requirement that universities originating from non-EU countries need bilateral contracts between governments for operations. The law also prevents the American and Hungarian entities from sharing the same name, meaning that the Central European University – a direct translation of the Hungarian Kozep-europai Egyetem – may no longer operate under that name.

The law also prevents Hungarian universities, like the Kozep-europai Egyetem, from offering programs or degrees from non-EU universities, like CEU, which is an American higher education institution in partnership with the Hungarian Kozep-europai Egyetem.

The draft law drew wide condemnation from abroad, including the US Department of State, which in a media statement urged the Hungarian government to avoid taking legislative steps that would compromise CEU’s operations or independence. It has also prompted public demonstrations in Hungary.

CEU, founded by the philanthropist George Soros in 1991, has a 26-year history in Hungary. It is one of only few universities that offer both American and Hungarian degrees to students from over 129 countries. Several current Hungarian government officials are CEU graduates.

This attack on CEU is the latest in a series of attacks against nongovernmental organizations receiving funding from Soros, including the human rights and anti-corruption organizations Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and Transparency International Hungary. The government has stated that it intends to create regulations to effectively target such groups, but has yet to publish draft legislation.

The government’s hostility toward independent groups was manifest in a new “national consultation” announced by Prime Minister Viktor Orban in February under which the government has sent a questionnaire to every household in Hungary. The government said it wants to determine the people’s will on what it terms “the five threats” facing Hungary.

The questionnaire includes skewed questions about whether the government should clamp down on foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations operating in Hungary and whether to “punish” international organizations encouraging “illegal immigrants” to commit illegal acts. The last is likely a reference to groups that defend the rights of asylum seekers and migrants who are caught on Hungarian territory and pushed back, sometimes violently, to the Serbian border.

“The Hungarian government’s contempt for critical voices in society and academic freedom is unworthy of an EU member state,” Gall said. “The European Commission and Hungary’s European partners should press the government to end its intimidation of independent civil society organizations, reverse the law, and work with CEU and other universities affected to preserve their independence.”

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