Hungary softening bill targeting foreign-funded civic groups

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The Hungarian government will remove some of the disputed proposals in a bill targeting non-governmental organizations which receive foreign funding, officials said Thursday.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff, Janos Lazar, said the government accepted and adopted some of the "legal concerns" made by the Venice Commission, advisers of the Council of Europe, the continent's top human rights organization.

The commission expressed its concerns in a preliminary report published last week in which it also recognized the "legitimate aim" of ensuring the transparency of NGOs. The law also could contribute to efforts against money laundering and the financing of terrorism, the commission said.

NGOs say the bill is discriminatory and seeks to intimidate them. The bill is part of a wider government campaign against Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, whose Open Society Foundations support NGOs like the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which the government claims is working against national interests with its advocacy for asylum-seekers.

According to the bill expected to be passed next week, NGOs receiving more than about $26,000 a year from abroad will have to register with the courts and disclose their foreign donors. Failure to comply could lead to fines or other sanctions.

In line with the commission's recommendations, the civic groups will have to list only foreign donors giving more than 500,000 forints ($1,820) and NGOs will be allowed to apply for removal from the registry if they get less than $26,000 from abroad two years in a row, not three years as included in the bill's initial draft.

One of the most disputed points of the bill — an obligation for the groups to mention their foreign-funded status on most of their printed and online publications — was expected to remain.

"The government is doing what it always does — ignoring the main criticisms," said Gergely Barandy, a lawmaker with the opposition Socialist Party. "No substantial changes have been made and the bill is just as stigmatizing as before."

NGOs called for consultations with the government, another of the Venice's Commission's recommendations.