Thursday, August 10, 2017

Hungary's New NGO Law: Greater Transparency Requirements For Foreign-Funded NGOs

A photo of Hungary's parliament
Hungarian parliament. Photo: About Hungary Blog/Prominent US and European think tanks taken in by the “NGO crackdown” ruse

On June 13, 2017, Hungary's parliament passed a new law requiring greater transparency of foreign-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The new legislation corrected a loophole in Hungarian law that previously allowed such civic organizations to operate without disclosing where and from whom their funds came from. 

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz party he leads, have been determined to close this loophole in order to prevent NGOs from being used as Trojan horses to influence Hungary's domestic politics. The announcement to close the loophole was made in February and by April 2, the draft legislation was made available. 

The announcement sparked open and public debate, including criticism from Brussels, left-leaning mainstream media news web sites, several prominent European and American think tanks, and even Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland; criticism that has been for the most part, untruthful and factually incorrect.

With this new law in place all NGOs that qualify as being funded from abroad, must not only report it within fifteen days of receiving foreign funds, but state it as such on their web sites and publications. Failure to comply with these requirements will result in the notification by a prosecutor to do so within thirty days, as well as the possibility of a fine and suspension.

I applaud Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for this new law; it is simply a matter of common sense that when NGOs are funded by foreign interests—especially those that engage in political activity that have neither the democratic mandate do so; nor, do they provide any accountability to the citizenry—they should be transparent about that, as Hungarians have the right to know!

The failed "NGO Crackdown" ruse

In mid-March, opposition to the proposed new NGO legislation came in the form of an open letter representing several prominent US and European think tanks. It was entitled, No to NGO crackdown in Hungary, and "fittingly" published at the domain, ngocrackdown.com.

In essence, what the letter attempted to do was paint a false picture of the new law's transparency requirements, primarily through the use of selected historical references, bombastic language, and false claims about the Hungarian government.

Case in point, the letter states that the Hungarian government's intention is to root out NGOs that receive funding from George Soros. Although Prime Minister Orbán and the Hungarian government are well aware of the fact that Soros is in the "NGO business" and has an agenda for Hungary, the new law is aimed at all foreign-funded civic organizations.

The letter also stated that NGOs are an organic part of society and that their role does not depend on whether the government of the moment agrees with them. The letter lacks any specificity with respect to any civic organization, but instead refers to NGOs, foundations, and think tanks as a general grouping.

The signatories also neglected to mention those civic organizations that receive foreign-funding and engage in political activity; civic organizations whose financial support, direction, and agendas comes from well known globalists and billionaires, such as George Soros.

The arrogance and audacity of the signatories comes shining through when they suggest that Hungary should be proud of the "rich landscape of organizations of civil society," and how they ought to be careful not to "undo the extraordinary progress" that Hungary has seen since the fall of communism. Orbán and the Hungarian people don't need anyone to tell them about the struggles of living within a communist system, the fight for freedom and independence, and what a country needs to do to consistently and successfully move forward. The Hungarian people have admirably demonstrated this for centuries: during the early 1700s (Rákóczi’s War of Independence), the 1848 War of Independence, the Hungarian uprising of 1956and in recent years, under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who first took office in 2010.

Hungary has gone on the offensive and responded to all the criticism with the truth and the facts, and in the process, spotlighted what Hungarian government spokesman, Zoltan Kovács referred to as a, "NGO crackdown ruse." In a blog post dated March 21, 2017, Kovács—follow him on Twitter and his blog posts atAbout Hungary Blogfor daily updates on Hungary—wrote a thorough response to the letter, Prominent US and European think tanks taken in by the “NGO crackdown” ruse.

Kovács included many valid points that is sure to resonate with those that value the truth, factual information, and common-sense, as well as those who have come to appreciate the consistent progress that Hungary has made in the past seven years.

In addition to stressing how Hungary's draft legislation was about greater transparency, and the result of a normal concern of any government who identifies foreign-funded NGOs involved in political activities that could be construed as attempts to undermine the government and democracy as a whole, what most stands out about his blog post was how he debunked the notion that Hungary's transparency requirement is a "NGO crackdown."

Kovács first highlighted the signatories' specific wording: "NGO crackdown." It sounds serious, but the fact is, that is not what happened in Hungary. He elaborated with the following statement:
The NGO legislation that’s currently under consideration calls for greater transparency, particularly transparency of groups operating with international funding, as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó pointed out in his statement. Civic groups remain an essential part of every democratic society, but when they’re carrying out activities funded by a foreign interest, they should be transparent about that.
This is also the firm position of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who Kovács quoted, " 'Hungarian citizens must be given the right to know about all public actors, who they are and who pays them. We have the right to know,' said Prime Minister Orbán. 'So we want transparency.' "

Hungary is not alone in its concerns about foreign interests meddling in its domestic politics. As Kovács noted, in March a group of US senators wrote a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, asking him to investigate claims that American tax-payer money is being used to back left-wing, globalist-billionaire George Soros's overseas agenda for sovereign nations: specifically the attempts to affect certain political outcomes.

Kovács pointed out that there have been numerous examples of foreign meddling in Hungary. He cited the example of a Hungarian parliamentary opposition figure who received assistance from the Washington-based Center for American Progress, which as Kovács wrote is, "...[A] group founded by John Pedesta and itself a Soros grantee."

Further to this, Kovács highlighted how the European edition of POLITICO described Soro's agenda as an "anti-Orbán agenda," due to Hungary's response to the migrant crisis with its tight border security.

Hungary's entire border security measures, including the 3,000 border-hunters, has successfully halted the Balkan migrant route, putting further pressure on other migrant options, most notably the Italian-North African route. It has drawn further attention to how it is all connected to Soros's agenda for Europe; an agenda that you can read about in detail from Kovács's recent blog postWondering what PM Orbán meant with that reference to the Soros plan? Here it is

Kovács also mentioned that some of the most vocal critics against Hungary's border security measures and policies come from NGOs funded by George Soros.

The concluding point that completes the debunking of the "NGO crackdown ruse" is the simple fact that Hungary's new legislation, in comparison to the American equivalent—Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA)—is no where near as strict. To illustrate this point, Kovács quoted FARA, and then made it crystal clear that the signatories clearly were not in possession of the facts and probably just signed the letter without knowing the truth about Hungary's new legislation:
The United State [sic] has a federal law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. It says that people and organizations that are acting 'at the order, request, or under the direction or control' of a foreign government or organizations or persons outside the country must report their relationship with the foreign power. The report must disclose the related activities and finances. FARA is strict.
The new NGO regulations under consideration in Hungary are less strict than those of FARA.
If I were one of those asked to sign the letter and to lend my name to the cause, I would have wanted to know all of the above. I suspect that many did not know. They just signed it without checking.
They got taken in by the “NGO crackdown” ruse.

Putting the opposition to the new NGO law into perspective

In Hungary there are over 62,000 civic organizations in a country whose population is less than ten-million; the overwhelming majority of NGOs in Hungary have no objections to the new law.

Like in any other country, NGOs play an important role in Hungary's democracy, but a distinction must be made between grassroots and internationally funded NGOs. The former is typically made up of volunteers seeking to better their neighbourhood, town/city, province or state, and country as a whole, while the latter is quite a different situation. Foreign-funded NGOs are in essence a Trojan horse made up of personnel that refer to themselves as "civilians," but in fact, are actually are activists, and usually paid activists, whose goal is to propagate international interests, by directly interfering in the domestic politics of Hungary.

It is not surprising that civic organizations such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Helsinki Committee, and Amnesty International are so opposed to this new NGO law; all of whom have openly declared their intention to disobey it. It only begs the question, what are they hiding?

Objections from international NGOs have been based on the claim that Hungarian civil law discriminates and cannot be compared to the NGO legislation in other democracies. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As Zoltan Kovács pointed out in his blog post, Why do these NGOs resist transparency, such claims by the international NGOs do not connect to reality: German, Israeli and some aspects of American law (FARA) on foreign-funded NGOs are stricter than their Hungarian counterpart. He went on to further point out that in Austria, NGOs engaging in lobbying activity, such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, have to register as lobbyists.

Further in the blog post, Kovács asks the reader, "What do these protesting organizations have in common?" In addition to being pro-migrant NGOs, who are adamantly opposed to Hungary's border security measures, they also have a shared agenda to bring about a moral disorder in Hungary; namely, the legalization of drug use and through the ideology of gender mainstreaming.

What I found particularly noteworthy was the candid manner in which Kovács spotlighted what these NGOs are all about, "Let’s be honest, the organizations raising their voices against the new NGO Act are not grassroots initiatives. They are vehicles to advance the agenda of foreign political interests. These organizations don’t stand on their own. They depend for their livelihood on funding from Soros sources."

Further to this, Kovács also pointed out that the objections of the NGOs have not been based on facts, but rather, an ideological opposition with no legal basis. Here is what he stated:
'The NGO Act is being criticized exclusively by the same organizations – with funding from George Soros – that are opposing the government in relation to migration,' said Deputy Justice Minister Pál Völner recently. Völner also pointed out that no correspondence has been received from the complaining organizations explaining any concrete legal problems that they claim exist in the new legislation, reinforcing the impression that theirs is an ideological opposition not based on real, legal issues.
It was interesting to read that all this opposition came about after the heir to the Open Society empire, Alexander Soros, met with representatives of NGOs.

A legitimate aim of ensuring transparency of civic organizations

I agree with most of the findings of the Venice Commission, who at the request of Hungary, reviewed the draft legislation, provided an opinion, and approved it as pursuing a, "...[P]rima facie legitimate aim and can be considered 'necessary in a democratic society in the interest of national security and public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."

I particularly liked the commission's additional mention of another important point regarding transparency: how it may contribute to the fight against money laundering and the financing of terrorism.

The thrust of the commission's findings can be read in Kovács's blog post, Case Closed: Venice Commission says Hungary’s draft NGO law pursues ‘legitimate aim of ensuring transparency’.

In that post Kovács includes a few key points worth mentioning. The first is how he accurately illustrated—through a comparison of legislation with other countries—that Hungary's legislation is straightforward and clearly in line with the Venice Commission's finding of it being a legitimate aim. Here is what he wrote about this first point:
The Hungarian draft law, unlike the one in the United States, proposed relatively lighter reporting requirements and, contrary to the Israeli and Russian laws, avoids labeling foreign-funded NGOs as “agents”. Unlike a proposal in the European Parliament, it does not consider taking away public funding from these NGOs. Hungary’s draft law says that NGOs that receive funding from outside of Europe that exceeds a certain level must publicly declare that they receive funding from abroad in their materials and the registry. That’s pretty straightforward and clearly in line with what the Venice Commission says is a “legitimate aim”.
Of the commission's findings, there was one in particular that I did not agree with; that is, the point that Hungary's NGO law could have a "stigmatizing effect on those NGOs receiving foreign funding." Hungary had disagreed with the commission on this point. As Kovács noted, the NGO legislation, "...[D]oes not apply the term foreign 'agents' to these groups and the Commission’s concern would seem to be a contradiction to the opinion’s fundamental finding that 'it is legitimate, in order to secure transparency, to publicly disclose the identity of the [NGOs’] main sponsors.' "

Lastly, Kovács drew further attention to the fact all those who, "sounded off alarm bells," have done so without just cause, because the Venice Commision's opinion invalidates any claim that Hungary was carrying out a "NGO crackdown." To reiterate how legitimate Hungary's NGO law is, Kovács further referred to the the commission's opinion:
...the Commission said, the draft law pursues a legitimate aim of improving transparency of NGOs. What’s more, it is legitimate for a state to monitor the main sponsors of NGOs and legitimate to publicly disclose the identity of the main sponsors. It’s also not only legitimate but 'necessary in a democratic society' to require transparency of NGOs receiving funding from abroad in order to prevent them from being misused for foreign political goals.
Hungary's new NGO law is but one, in a long list of positive developments under the leadership of Viktor Orbán; a leadership that has proven itself over and over for seven straight years.


Zoltan Kovacs's blog post on North American criticism of the new NGO law. Photo: About Hungary Blog/Guess who else is concerned about foreign funding of NGOs

With respect to Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland's tweet on the day the new Hungarian NGO law took effect—calling it a “disappointing outcome”—it reflects badly on Canada. I totally disagree with her tweet.

If Freeland truly "values transparency & civil society as key facets of healthy democratic societies,” then she should retract her comment and apologize to Hungary.

What Freeland and many others fail to realize is that Hungary has got it right: the Hungarian model is working and it shows!

"Case closed."