NGO? We don’t want you here

Gabriella Horn (Atlatszo), Konrad Szczygieł (VSquare) 2020-07-30
Gabriella Horn (Atlatszo), Konrad Szczygieł (VSquare) 2020-07-30

“So why are nationalists so angry at the foreign sponsorship of NGOs if it compensates for the lack of national funding? They simply do not want citizens to organize. Totalitarian rule, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, is possible when the nation is broken up into atomized individuals who are discouraged, lonely and mistrustful”, wrote Ivaylo Ditchev, professor of cultural anthropology, in an opinion article for Deutsche Welle.

Since 2014, Hungary has been one of the countries (along with Russia, Bulgaria, etc.) where defamatory propaganda and various restrictions made it clear to non-governmental organisation that they are not welcome in the country if their goals or opinion is different from that of the government’s. The Hungarian Prime Minister himself has not been hiding his hostility towards these organizations. His government and his party Fidesz, with its two thirds majority in Parliament, have passed laws, brought government decrees, made critical and sometimes derogatory speeches about NGOs and their activists, especially those who voice their concerns about government’s questionable decisions. 

One of these acts, Law on the Transparency of Organisations Receiving Foreign Funds (so-called anti-NGO law) from June 2017, was recently found by the European Court of Justice to be not compatible with the legislation of the EU, because it restricts the financing of NGOs and violates both the free movement of capital and fundamental rights. The law is also still being examined at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg because 14 civil organizations took the case there in January 2018 after the Hungarian Constitutional Court refused to examine it.

The Hungarian government claimed that the law was necessary to combat crime and terrorism, while critics said it stigmatizes and undermines civil society organizations which criticize the government. In their opinion, it’s main target was the Hungarian born American philanthropist George Soros, who supports the idea of open society and through his foundations offers grants and support for organizations working for democracy and human rights globally. For several years Orban repeatedly accused organizations funded by the philanthropist of political interference. 

“Paid by foreigners”

But there is more to it than just a conflict with George Soros. Few years ago, in July 2014, Orban made a speech in Bad Tusnad (Romania) in which he described how he is building an illiberal, national state. Orban stated that NGOs are obstacles in this process, adding: “If I look at the non-governmental world in Hungary, or at least at those organisations which are regularly in the public gaze […] then what I see is that we are dealing with paid political activists. And in addition these paid political activists are political activists who are being paid by foreigners. They are activists who are being paid by specific foreign interest groups…”

Also in 2014 Orbán’s government started attacking independent organizations which get support from the EEA/Norway Grants. In May that year, a state audit by the Government Control Office (KEHI) was launched to investigate the organizations which distribute the Norway grants: Ökotárs Foundation and Foundation for Development of Democratic Rights (DemNet). The KEHI report claimed Ökotárs was guilty of mismanagement, fraud, forgery, and unauthorized financial activities. In September the police – with representatives from the Government Control Office  – raided offices of these foundations, Ökotárs and DemNet, and searched the flat of  Ökotárs’s director Veronika Móra and some other colleagues. Móra was lead away by the police, even though she was not arrested.

In December 2014, in an interview to Bloomberg Orban already mentioned a potential registration of NGOs which receive foreign funding. When the regulation was finally passed in 2017, it received major international criticism and was often described as one of a series of measures hostile towards nonprofit organizations acting as watchdogs monitoring Orbán’s new illiberal system, which had been for several years getting rid of the checks and balances of democratic society and giving more and more room to populist propaganda. 

The scarlet letter

The Law on the Transparency of Organisations Receiving Foreign Funds states that nonprofit organizations which receive at least 7.2 million HUF (app. 20 thousands EUR) a year from outside of Hungary are obliged to register with the court as an organization receiving foreign funding. Every year they have to hand in a report about their foreign funding, and this law requires them to use the label “organization receiving foreign funding” on their website and publications. A list of foreign funded NGOs is also published online by the government.  Failure to comply with the law can result in sanctions up to 2.9 thousand EUR, which, according to critics, is disproportionate.

The act was submitted as a proposal by three Fidesz MPs, not by the government, so it was not compulsory to consult with the public. The government called for a consultation between the five parliamentary groups of political parties. None of the opposition factions supported the proposal. There was no public debate about this law. 

Among others the European Commission voiced its concerns. The Venice Commission recognized that the final version of the law can be considered as slightly improved compared to the original version, yet it highlighted some critical details, such as that he exclusion of a number of associations and organisations from the scope of application of the Draft Law was unclear and the period of three years during which a civil society organisation may not receive any foreign funding in order to be entitled to initiate a deregistration procedure is quite long and appears to be arbitrary.

The Hungarian Helsinki Comittee, a non-governmental watchdog, prepared a detailed analysis of the law and stated that this regulation is mimicking autocratic Russia. e.g it interferes with the freedom of expression of the organizations, it violates the right to privacy and personal data protection, violates the freedom of association and restricts the free movement of capital. 

Another NGO, The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, stated that “similar laws were adopted in Russia and Israel in the disguise of transparency, which aim at silencing NGOs providing critical services and monitoring government’s human rights track record. The now adopted Hungarian NGO Act is a carbon-copy of Putin’s foreign agent law. This law was followed by multiple amendment restricting the rights and activities of NGOs and resulting in 27 organizations closing down since the law was adopted.”

A tax on helping

Another blow came in 2018, when immigration special tax was introduced. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union described it as “nothing but a severe restriction of the freedom of speech: those that are supporting immigration in a professional way (doing so in an organized framework, as a calling, while using money from supporters) can, from now on, only do so if paying a special, 25% tax.”

According to this law, the registering court has to send by 15th day of each month to the minister responsible for managing the Civil Information Portal (Civil Információs Portál) the names, registered seats and tax identification numbers of all the associations and foundations which qualified in the preceding month  as an organisation receiving support from abroad. The minister publishes the received data on a website. Organizations which fall under this law are obliged to notify the court within 15 days if they become an organisation receiving support from abroad.

New legislation helped to create an atmosphere of fear. But there were many other signs of hostility toward NGOs.

In 2018, an election year, pro-government media have published a series of defaming articles about NGOs which they refer to as “Soros mercenaries”, “Soros activists”, etc. The newspaper “Magyar Idők” published alleged investigative reports claiming that “Soros activists” wanted to provoke subversive unrest in Hungary. 

After an inflammatory article was published in June 2018 by a pro-government news site, Pesti Srácok, about a Budapest-based organization Menedék (Shelter,) helping refugees with integration in Hungary, the organization had troubles with renting places for their events. Premises owners were worried that they might be charged with “promoting illegal migration”.

The same year activists from the youth wing of Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz put stickers on the buildings of organizations like Amnesty International and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, with the inscription: “This organization supports immigration.”

Pole and Hungarian brothers be 

Although Poland has not yet adopted a law that would blatantly interfere with the activities of non-governmental organisations, it can change soon. Since Law and Justice came to power in 2015 NGOs have not been able to relax.

The announcement that the NGOs will be under strict governmental control was made in May 2020 by Minister of Environment Michał Woś. On the Catholic TV Trwam, the minister said: “I have set up a working group in the ministry working on disclosing the financing of NGOs, not only ecological ones, because it will serve the whole of Poland, so that all organisations have transparency of finances. They will be able to show whether they are financed from foreign funds or not. Those who are should inform Poles about it. The minister further explained that the reason for starting work on the new law is the interest of Poles “The crossroads of the Vistula Spit is underway, some organisations express deep dissatisfaction about it. Some say that the expert opinions, which show that this cross-cut should not take place, were originally written – I do not know, this is to be checked – in Cyrillic”.

One of the biggest investments of the Law and Justice government, the construction of a shipping canal on the Vistula Spit, was protested by ecological activists even before the first shovel was driven into the construction site. Earlier, ecologists were equally active in protecting the Białowieża Forest when Woś’s predecessor, Minister Jan Szyszko, increased logging in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Perhaps this is why the Minister of Environment, most disturbed by non-governmental organisations, is so interested in this issue.

We asked the Ministry of Environment about the progress of law making and what it will assume. “A working group has been established, which has already started its analytical work. The experts evaluate, among other things, the possibilities of using the legal solutions already existing elsewhere, e.g. in the United States, Great Britain or Germany, in the Polish legal system, which guarantee transparency of NGOs’ financing. The schedule has not been established yet, and the assumptions are such as to increase the transparency of NGOs’ financing”– explains the Ministry’s press office.

To this day Ministry hasn’t given any specifics – we don’t know what the regulations will contain or when they could come into force. 

Hate campaign

Even before the idea of verifying NGOs’ financial accounts came up, civic organizations were tormented and vilified in state media, such as Telewizja Polska (Polish Television – TVP). The hate campaign started in the autumn of 2016 when the main TVP news programme, ‘Wiadomości’, for nearly two weeks, day by day, aired materials in which it disclosed sources of funding of civil rights NGOs. During heated discussion on the reform of the justice system in Poland, the state television accused wide array of organizations of having ties with former president of the Constitutional Tribunal and former president of the Civic Platform, main opposition party. The state television has accused NGOs that they use the subsidies from the city of Warsaw – then ruled by Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, from the Civic Platform. Polish Television focused especially on those organizations that benefit from financial support coming from abroad. “Are we heading in the direction of Russia, which gave the status of agents to foundations financed from abroad?” – asked journalists on Twitter.

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights also defended the NGOs. “The campaign targeting the NGO sector is an act to the detriment of the public good, which public media are obliged to protect. The materials were constructed in a way that aims to present social activists in a negative light and are an attempt to discredit the activities of leading Polish NGOs. These materials unreliably present the work of organizations working in the public interest and tasked with monitoring the observance of human rights and democracy by the authorities” – stated the Foundation in a complaint to the National Broadcasting Council, the body that oversees the observance by the media of ethical principles and journalistic standards.

A year later, in 2017, a new government institution was established, the National Freedom Institute – Centre for Civil Society Development (NIW), with main task of controlling the flow of public funds to non-governmental organisations. Very soon after creating of this institution, Polish government started to fight for NIW to take control over the spending of EEA/Norway Grants money in Poland as well. The so-called Norwegian Funds, in addition to national, public funds, are one of the largest financial resources for NGOs. Piotr Gliński, Deputy Prime Minister who supervises NIW, was personally involved in the action. Finally, after the Norwegian government’s protests, the funds remained at the disposal of the former operator – the Batory Foundation and a consortium of other NGOs.

Unsurprisingly, before the Batory Foundation became the fund operator, PiS politicians, hand in hand with the right-wing media, had organized another media campaign. Together they had argued that Batory Foundation should not become an operator of EEA funds. Why not? Same old story: Batory’s Foundation had been accused of subsidizing organizations fighting for LGBT right and unclear ties to Soros. 

Nowadays, a couple of weeks after presidential elections in Poland, it can be expected that the tightening of the rhetoric of government officials may speed up work on regulations hitting NGOs, based on models known from Hungary or Russia. So far, voices have been raised about the need to “repolonize the media” and deeper reform of the judiciary.

Konrad Szczygieł

Konrad Szczygieł is an investigative journalist at FRONTSTORY.PL. Previously, he was a reporter at Superwizjer TVN and OKO.Press. Since 2016, he has worked with Fundacja Reporterów (Reporters Foundation). He was shortlisted for a Grand Press award (2016, 2021) and an Andrzej Woyciechowski award (2021). He is based in Warsaw.