BUDAPEST, Hungary — 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
“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 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.
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.
“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 said they would not 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, a European group of legal experts, but most of the disputed regulations remained in place.