Civil society organisations, philanthropists & policymakers (inter-act) to get to the heart of matter
(the original version of this was article published on the EFC website)
CIVICUS, European Alternatives, European Civic Forum, and the European Foundation Centre facilitated an ad hoc, interactive policy briefing on the current situation around the civic space in Hungary. Around 70 participants came together at Philanthropy House on 6th November from 10.00-12.00 to join the debate.
The recent developments which have been reported in Hungary risk violating basic human rights such as right to liberty, freedom of association, freedom of expression and information as well as freedom of the press and wider media, and are becoming increasingly alarming. The disablement of the legal environment for NGOs and the questioning of their legitimacy is becoming a significant and worrying trend.
“The situation in Hungary feels like the thin end of the wedge of a growing and concerning trend that is emerging in various forms across the globe and putting civil society at risk, said Ewa Kulik-Bielinska, Executive Director, Stefan Batory Foundation and Chair of the European Foundation Centre in her welcoming remarks. “After the fall of the wall, Hungary was considered by many as a model for a transition to a democracy with a lively civil society since many innovative ideas came from Hungary such as the percentage law system by which tax payers could dedicate 1% of paid taxes to public benefit organisations. We need to act to guarantee the freedom of civil society to play its role effectively and to operate as an essential mechanism of a check and balance of power that any healthy society and working democracy has in place. The events in Hungary provide an opportunity for European institutions as well as European NGOs and foundations, to reassert the values underpinning the EU.”
Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, said that the scope of dialogue between NGOs and decision makers had been shrinking since 2010. Civil groups are disregarded and they face political pressure.
Hungary has a large number of NGOs, but many of them are financially dependent on central or local government funding or EU funding. While service providers have easier access to government support, the independent civil sector also relies on other external resources, such as multinational companies or foundations. In the current overpoliticised and polarised context, multinational companies generally do not support human rights initiatives since they perceive funding NGOs that criticise the government as very risky, she said. Civil society organisations as the last bastion of independence have come into the spotlight because the political opposition is weak and those who express criticism against the government receive attention, she said. Orban himself favoured in a speech in late July the model of an illiberal state in which Civil Society hinders the realisation of his aims.
Alongside the worrisome situation currently being affronted by Hungarian NGOs and civil society, the independence and pluralism of the media in Hungary is also a key area of concern, as noted by Lorenzo Marsili, co-founder and director of European Alternatives. In a country seen to be running free but unfair elections, safeguarding spaces for impartial debate is a central component in ensuring Hungarians are able to fairly choose their own government at the next round of elections. At EU level, he considers that a review of the Audiovisual Directive should ensure swift implementation of the Media Pluralism Monitor, as well as a harmonisation of rules governing media supervisory bodies to ensure clear independence from government, a condition currently not respected in Hungary.
Another important area of concern and possible EU action is that of structural funds and government corruption. 97% of public investment in Hungary is co-funded by the EU. With worrying signs of state-capture, corruption and maladministration, European institutions and the European Court of Auditors should ensure public funds are being correctly employed.
Participants agreed that Hungarian NGOs and civil society, under attack by the government, require as much support as possible. Hungary needs to become a priority for organised European civil society. EU action should be further pushed for, as well as UN-level action.
A number of the participants and organising partners have agreed on follow up actions and for further information or to get involved please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
See here for the report on the Brussels event and here for the timeline of government attacks against Hungarian NGOs, prepared by Hungarian Helsinki Committee.