With independent media largely silenced or taken over, the courts increasingly curbed, and a parliament firmly under the control of the newly re-elected Fidesz ruling party, Hungary’s nongovernmental groups are the most effective remaining voices to hold the government to account. It should come as no surprise then that they are increasingly under fire.
Laws passed against these groups in 2017 and since Hungary’s legislative elections are bad enough. But the authorities recently introduced draft bills that would impose a special 25 percent tax on funds for “supporters of immigration” and change the law governing public assembly to give the police more discretion to ban or disband demonstrations they don’t like.
They follow a law that came into force on July 1 that makes it a crime to help refugees, asylum seekers, or other migrants. The law is designed to intimidate people who work or volunteer for aid groups. They could be jailed for up to a year for their work under the new law.
This newest law criminalizes a wide range of legitimate activities that are essential to expose and hopefully moderate the suffering caused by the government’s policies and practices on refugees and migrants, from violence at borders to lengthy detention in container camps. Legal professionals and aid workers will now take personal risks if they attempt to carry on their work advising asylum seekers and migrants about their rights in Hungary or simply sharing information or building volunteer groups.
The law passed in 2017 in the Fidesz-majority parliament requires organizations to register as “foreign-funded organizations” if they receive over a certain threshold of financial support from abroad and to use this pejorative label at every public appearance. The law – largely inspired by Russia’s ‘Foreign Agent’ Law – is intended to discredit and demonize civic action. It drew international condemnation from the human rights community and international experts.
A coalition of independent groups formed an alliance in response, to disobey the law and challenge it in the Hungarian constitutional court and the European Court of Human Rights. But while the clock is ticking for Hungarian groups, these challenges are still pending.
The government has also run a series of taxpayer-funded campaigns against independent groups and those who support them, from ordinary citizens to the billionaire philanthropist George Soros. State-sponsored billboards were similarly used to fuel hatred against asylum seekers and migrants. While the number of arrivals in Hungary is small, it suits Prime Minister Viktor Orban to talk about an invasion, since it legitimizes punitive action against people trying to stand up for the rights of everyone in the country.
These new and proposed laws and smear campaigns send a clear message to those who act in solidarity with the most marginalized groups like migrants, Roma, and the recently criminalized homeless: be quiet or face the consequences.
While European leaders get frustrated and tired with Orban’s stance on migration in Brussels, these last proposals for a biased tax and new curbs on peaceful gatherings should not be taken lightly. The complete rewrite of the Law on Assembly is set to strengthen protection for powerful interests against having to face protesters. For example, it could lead to banning protests outside the homes of public figures or embassies. Critics of autocratic regimes visiting the Hungarian parliament could be silenced or prosecuted for protesting.
These are serious risks affecting everyone’s rights to free assembly and expression. The changes benefit a political elite irritated by the voices demanding the government to heed European values of democracy, transparency and rule of law. No parliamentary vote, regardless of its size, should be a mandate for rights abuse.
Many of the organizations still standing up for the rights to free expression and association, are the same groups working to advance the rights of migrants and refugees in Hungary, as well as the rights of prisoners, Roma, people with disabilities, children, and women who face domestic violence. In short, anyone who needs protection.
Unless Europe holds the government accountable for disregarding European rules and values, there is no doubt that those who dissent and criticize unjust policies will come under increased pressure to give up or give in. European leaders have a duty to protect these values and those in Hungary who defend them and have no time to waste.