Hungary passes bill regulating foreign-funded NGOs

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Hungary's parliament on Tuesday approved a law regulating civic groups which receive foreign funding, a move critics see as part of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's efforts to stifle dissent and increase control over public discourse.

The bill passed by the governing parties led by Orban compels groups getting more than 7.2 million forints ($26,200) a year from abroad to register the fact with the courts and announce in most of their online and printed publications that they are foreign-funded.

Non-governmental organizations will also have to list any foreign sponsors giving them more than 500,000 forints ($1,800) a year.

The law is nominally meant to increase transparency among civic groups and boost efforts against money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Religious and sports organizations, as well as those representing ethnic minorities, are exempt from the law.

"No one wants to limit anyone's operations in Hungary ... but organizations whose foreign financing is not known can't be allowed to take part in Hungarian public life," said Gergely Gulyas, a deputy parliamentary speaker and member of Orban's Fidesz party.

Amnesty International described the bill as a "vicious and calculated assault on civil society."

The law's true aim is "to stigmatize, discredit and intimidate critical NGOs," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's director for Europe. "This latest assault on civil society is aimed at silencing critical voices within the country, has ominous echoes of Russian's draconian 'foreign agents' law, and is a dark day for Hungary."

At the heart of the issue is the conflict between Orban and Hungarian-American financier George Soros, whose ideal of an "open society" is at odds with Orban's desire to turn Hungary into an "illiberal state."

Soros' Open Society Foundations support some of the NGOs such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights advocate, and corruption watchdog Transparency International. The government sees those groups as "foreign agents" working against Hungarian interests.

The law "is needed because of the vetting of the Soros network," Fidesz communications director Balazs Hidveghi said. "Soros has declared war on Hungary, wants to dismantle the fence, bring in the immigrants and use his agent organizations for this."

The Open Society Foundations said the legislation was a "serious attack on Hungarian democracy" and called for the law to be reversed.

The law "seeks to suppress democratic voices in Hungary just when the country needs them most," said Goran Buldioski, director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe. "The notion that the groups it targets represent a threat to national security is absurd."

Orban and other government officials have expressed their displeasure especially with the Helsinki Committee's advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers and claim the group is among those working to weaken Hungary's radical anti-migrant policies, including razor-wire fences on its southern borders built in 2015 to stop the migrant flow.

"The wolf has dressed up in sheep's clothing and this must be prevented," Peter Harrach, a leader of the Christian Democrats who are Orban's coalition partners, said of the NGOs accused of meddling in domestic politics.

The Helsinki Committee and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union announced boycotts and said they wouldn't comply with the new regulations as their financial situations are already "fully transparent" and vowed to appeal any legal steps taken against it.

Amendments to the bill took into account some of the recommendations made by the Venice Commission — advisers of the Council of Europe, the continent's top human rights organization — but most of the disputed regulations remained in place.

According to the law, the names, addresses and tax numbers of the groups in question will be published on the "Civil Information Portal" and updated monthly.