Democracy & Justice

What Happened With Hungary's NGO Law Since The EU Court Ruled It Incompatible With EU Law

Here's what it means for other rights defenders across Europe.

by Linda Ravo

In a landmark ruling issued exactly one year ago, the EU Court of Justice struck down as incompatible with EU law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights the Orban government’s attempt to weaken and smear citizens’ groups critical of corruption and growing authoritarianism in the country. One year on, the picture is still grim for rights & democracy groups in Hungary and across the EU. But resistance is growing, and Liberties is working hard to support it.

We are social people. Coming together with like-minded people in associations to share our passions, take care of vulnerable people in society, demand respect for our rights or simply speak out on things that matter to us, like the environment or our basic freedoms, is an important part of our life as a community. Our right to organise and act together through associations is an important tool allowing us to achieve bigger and better things than if we work alone. But governments are putting this right under increasing pressure. Here’s why and what we at Liberties are doing to protect it.

Anti-democratic governments don’t like NGOs

In a well-functioning democracy, independent, non-governmental associations and organisations (NGOs) are there to keep an eye on whether the government is misusing citizens’ money, abusing their powers or breaking the law, and take them to court if they do so. NGOs also help us get organised and voice our opinions and concerns to our elected representatives, through petitions, peaceful protests and by engaging in law and policy making processes. They are an important tool that we can use to express our opinions, exercise our right to protest and get justice when our rights are violated.

As we explained here, the fact that NGOs are so important for democracy is the reason why anti-democratic governments don’t like them. For years, pro-democracy, civil liberties, anti-corruption and environmental NGOs and activists, including in the EU, have become the target of governments who wish to silence critics that expose their wrongdoings and corruption.

The foreign funding law adopted in Hungary in 2017, and struck down one year ago by the EU Court of Justice following a legal action taken by the EU Commission, which Liberties had strongly advocated for, is an emblematic example of how an authoritarian government can try and silence NGOs. The law was part of a long line of steps taken by Orban’s government to crack down on those criticising the government’s serious corruption, attacks on individual freedoms, take-overs of independent institutions like the media and the courts, and hate mongering against minority groups like migrants and LGBTQI+ people. Based on the false claim that pro-democracy NGOs were paid to attack national interests by foreign donors, the law illegally restricted NGOs’ donations and imposed stigmatising reporting obligations to publicly discredit them and their donors.

The EU Court’s judgment was groundbreaking. However, things have not really improved. It took almost a year and a new legal action by the EU Commission for the government to repeal the 2017 law, and only a few weeks to present a new restrictive bill which is already raising concerns. Another restrictive law from 2018 imposing a penalising tax on NGOs working on the topic of migration is still in force. Meanwhile, in another EU country run by an authoritarian government, Poland, the ruling party ignored the Court’s ruling and attempted to pass a law similar to Hungary’s foreign funding law, to further dry up resources of NGOs that do not share its ultra-conservative agenda.

Common tactics used by anti-democratic governments to weaken independent NGOs also include attempts to destroy NGOs’ reputation with the public by accusing them of being unpatriotic and of working against the country’s values and interests. Intensifying attacks against groups and activists working on women’s rights or the rights of LGBTQI+ people in Hungary and Poland are a telling example. In Slovenia, which is run by a government showing increasingly authoritarian tendencies, the Prime Minister has long been trying to turn public opinion against critical rights groups by portraying them as taking up public funds that should be going to help citizens, while media close to the government use virulent smear campaigns to damage the reputation of associations.

In all these countries, there also is a documented increase of attacks against NGOs and activists through abusive legal actions taken forward by politicians and businesses close to the governments.

Elsewhere things are getting difficult, too

As a recent report by Liberties shows, even governments in traditionally strong democracies are doing damage to the work of independent NGOs.

Top concerns include unfavourable regulatory frameworks, such as in Ireland, where arbitrary rules on political campaigning are hindering NGOs’ advocacy role; or in Germany, where civil liberties groups operate under the threat of losing their charitable status as vague and outdated legislation are being exploited by politicians and commercial lobbyists to target critics – as illustrated in a dedicated Liberties report. Attempts to limit NGOs’ independence are also becoming common: for example, in France a recent law requiring associations to sign a “Republic commitment contract” has been strongly criticised for being divisive and contrary to freedom of association and freedom of expression. Crackdowns on protests by police are routinely reported in countries such as Belgium, Spain or Sweden, where NGOs recently recorded several episodes of excessive police violence when policing demonstrations. Governments are also using criminal laws to restrict certain NGOs’ activities, such as the provision of humanitarian assistance to migrants in Greece, Malta or Italy. Governments across the EU are equally failing to counter threats and attacks facing NGOs and activists, including the growing phenomenon of SLAPPs, abusive lawsuits targeting those that speak out in the public interest.

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If shrinking civic space is a phenomenon that has been observed since some years, our research on the impact of COVID-19 points to how worrying trends have accelerated during the pandemic. Reduced funding, arbitrary limitations to free speech and the right to protest and the use of emergency legislation with no space for consultations have hindered NGOs from carrying out their work – which has made it harder to plot a course through the crisis in a way that is best for the people.

Pressure grows, but so does resilience

Against the background of increasing pressure, NGOs are joining forces and building resilience against attacks.

Fighting for free and independent NGOs has been since the beginning a core area of Liberties’ work, and we are now investing growing resources and energies to support these efforts. This year, the EU created a new fund to financially support rights and democracy groups, which was originally proposed by Liberties. In the future, we’ll continue supporting NGOs by:

  • Monitoring and reporting on threats to NGOs to help mobilise public support and press national governments and the EU to protect for our right to organise through associations;
  • Strenghtening our network of national members to support their work on the ground, by making it easier to join forces and learn from each other;
  • Using our expertise to advocate with people working in the EU institutions on things they can do to uphold NGOs’ rights, including being more determined in taking action against governments, fill legislative gaps and better channelling funding;
  • Training and coaching our members and other NGOs on talking about their work in a way that is easy to understand and that resonates with people. A new Liberties guide on civic space will soon be out to advise NGOs on how to raise awareness about their key role and frame effectively their responses to smears and attacks.

Stay tuned, follow us and help us protect our protectors.

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