In an interview for the Legal Dialogue, Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, talks about the shrinking civil space in Hungary as a result of several factors: general government policy not to engage constructively with civil society and external expert organisations on matters of policy, and government officials discrediting independent civil society groups, which is enhanced by some media outlets.
- The Hungarian authorities repeatedly called its critics instruments of foreign political influence. Is this something new for Hungarian NGOs and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee? Are you deprived of having a dialogue with the government?
- Working in a human rights organisation or acting as a human rights organisation has never been an easy ride. I think there has been visible progress in many areas in Hungary since the mid-90s, a lot of larger NGOs and civil society groups were established around that time. Many of them were able to grow over the past 20 years and most still exist. In the areas in which the Helsinki Committee has been involved — refugee protection, human rights monitoring of detention facilities, conditions in prisons, and treatment in police jails – there has been improvement. Over time, human rights work has become more accepted and an everyday feature of a working democracy.For example, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee has an agreement with the police, the immigration service and the national prison service under which we can go in and do human rights monitoring in detention facilities. Initially this was an outrageous idea, “some civil society groups coming into our prisons and walking around, asking everybody questions, writing public reports”. Over time both in the police and the prison system this became a given; no longer a nonsense. The existence of civil society control and monitoring over institutions of power has become more and more part of everyday reality.Lately though, and particularly since 2014, there has been a significant reversal of this trend. From 2010, after the Orbán government1 was elected, we began to see that there were a lot of constitutional changes2 going on in Hungary, sweeping legal changes affecting most of the pillars of a system built on checks and balances and the rule of law. Together with many other NGOs and human rights watchdogs we were very vocal in advocating for either not going ahead with these changes or modifying them. After a lot of advocacy around the constitutional reform issues, it soon became clear that the government had no appetite to listen to us. That was a marked change from our experience under previous governments, when our comments on draft legislation would be heard, even if not necessarily be accepted by ministries. There would be a policy debate between technical experts, we would have a good professional understanding; we could talk to both the Ministry of Justice and Interior Ministry. In 2010 there was a significant change. We began to notice that the comments we made basically just bounced off without any reaction or consideration about what we were saying.We called attention to a lot of changes to the law that contradict Hungary’s human rights obligations or EU law and these were all disregarded. But we did make some progress – for example, in taking cases to the European Court for Human Rights or providing information to the European Commission and other institutions so they would start an infringement procedure against Hungary. These culminated in law suits and in a lot of cases the government had to backtrack. But these measures are a last resort in a way: they take a lot of time, they are very legalistic so they can remedy one or two features of an issue, but won’t solve the overall problem.In April 2014 after the parliamentary elections, the government shifted gear and started lashing out against independent civil society. That started with the Norway NGO Grants affair. The EEA Grants and Norway Grants is a joint programme of Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein for funding projects in less-developed European economies. The Norway NGO Funds aimed to strengthen civil society development and enhance contribution to social justice, democracy and sustainable development through funding NGO projects in Hungary. The Helsinki Committee was not involved in that directly because we were not beneficiaries of those funds. There was a series of investigations against the NGOs that managed the Fund and the recipients, in addition to an adverse media campaign — in which completely untrue statements were made. There was a strong campaign to discredit any critical NGO voices against the government. The last remnants of an independent voice were portrayed by the press and politicians as “agents”, “politically motivated”, “bought by foreign funders to speak out against Hungary”. Investigations by tax and criminal authorities found no evidence of illegality, but the label stuck. “Norwegian agent” became a household expression. And it is now matched by the term “Soros agents”, the agents of financier and philanthropist George Soros. It is even used by people who don’t believe the propaganda, it’s a joke, but a commonplace joke, which many are ready to accept as true.
- How does that work with the media and the public?
- There’s a part of the Hungarian population that is normally very apathetic and disinterested in political issues, disillusioned or just stays away from politics altogether. Maybe dealing with everyday life they don’t have the time and energy to spend on public issues. They are very susceptible to any falsehoods, post-factual political messages. People who consume only television – and a lot of Hungarians get their information from TV – those are very simplistic messages. They would get the picture that these NGOs meddle in politics and represent alien interests, counter to what the government wants to do.In the past two years with the refugee crisis and the Hungarian government’s “all out” propaganda they probably think of the Helsinki Committee as something that would have Europe flooded with migrants in an uncontrolled way, which is not something we would ever say. But this is how we are portrayed and talked about. Even the Prime Minister has said on many occasions that illegal migration to Europe is driven by a coalition of three groups — Brussels bureaucrats, people smugglers and human rights activists3. So we are lumped in together with the anti-Brussels rhetoric. I think a lot of people simply believe this.On the other hand there are a lot of people who are discontent with the government, they are upset about corruption, the healthcare system, education, low wages, about migration of Hungarians to other EU countries. At the same time even within this group there is a higher rate of approval for Orbán’s anti-refugees policies. You hear that quite a lot: “I hate Fidesz, I don’t agree with the Hungarian government, I think they are corrupt thieves, but with this fence at the border they got it right, you have to give it to them.” There is a lot of mistrust of NGOs that call for human rights protection, upholding fairly abstract principles.But there is still a part of society that sees civil society as the genuine, professional, well-established pillar of democracy. This group is becoming more visual as time passes, we see it in reactions we get from the public. On our Facebook page there are quite a lot of trolls, many of them doing it in a more organised way, and there are a lot of people who get into a debate with these trolls, so there are people saying this is not right.
- Are you invited on TV?
- The Hungarian media is very polarised. Last year with the refugee crisis we were on air on TV channels a lot, from morning shows to nightly news on the private channels RTL and TV2. There was a public poll in July about certain civil society organisations and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee was widely recognised. Half of the respondents said they had heard of us and associated us with our work for the refugees. We were in newspapers, on radio shows. But we were never invited on the public broadcast TV channels and the number one political public radio station Kossuth. Last summer we had TV crews in our office basically every afternoon but the national TV didn’t come. Since January 2015 we have not been invited to speak on Hungarian national TV.
- Is the court system still independent?
- The Helsinki Committee did take Fidesz to court twice and we won. The statements made about us in the press by Fidesz were untrue, not an expression of opinion, these were statements portrayed as facts4. There was a lot of attention in the media, I think that always helps. The courts are still independent. However in certain cases you can sense there is some bias or some pressure. But there is a plan to reorganise the court system, so that certain administrative cases which are elevated or of bigger impact will be dealt by a special separate court. Certain freedom of information cases that are extremely important for lawyers and journalists to uncover things could go there. And one could say that this court could be stacked with judges who are mindful of their political impact and also of the consequences these judgements will have for their own career. The last years have shown that making migration the number one issue has raised support for Fidesz, you can say it paid off — all the money and effort put in the public campaign. The messaging about the Norway NGO fund, about civil society in general or independent civil society in general was somehow put on the back burner, it didn’t disappear entirely, but the government shifted its attention to the migration agenda. At the beginning of October 2016 the National Security’s oversight deputy chair Szilárd Németh5, a Fidesz Member of Parliament, requested the National Services screen 22 NGOs because they pose a national security risk.I don’t know which 22 NGOs. Maybe there’s a coincidence that 22 NGOs made a joint statement in August about the migrant quota referendum? The essential message was that we have to invalidate the referendum process, because the whole idea that Hungary doesn’t have responsibilities towards receiving and helping refugees is illegitimate, invalid. We had discussions about giving direct advice on what to do and how to vote, normally that is not what a human rights NGO would do. But this referendum and campaign was so extreme and extraordinary, that we at the Helsinki Committee and some other NGOs decided to call on people to cast an invalid vote. We supported this position because people should participate in democratic processes but the referendum question was invalid in our view. Normally invalid votes are never more than 1.8% of the votes cast and this time more than 6%, about 225,000, people voted with an invalid ballot. That’s a huge victory in getting our message out. That was an impactful campaign. Over the years there have been several shorter lists of NGOs mentioned as suspect in interviews. This is what we followed up with a lawsuit. This national security risk is something different, graver.
- Are you being watched?
- It’s very clear from the legal framework that wiretapping is possible. There is a likelihood that conversations are being monitored. Ever since the Norway NGO Grants attack broke out people are aware that they may be monitored. And what’s the purpose? It’s clearly unlawful. Maybe it’s not going on and it’s just enough that people think that it’s going on — this kind of intimidation is one of the tools. You don’t need to do anything, just to talk about it. At the moment it stays on the level of talking about NGOs. For the public it’s enough to be hearing this kind of labelling. The investigations find no wrongdoing, which is a failure for the government; it can no longer support this propaganda line.In October the NGO Energia Klub was all over the news. It works on the Paks 2 nuclear plant project, which is going to be expanded by the Russian nuclear energy corporation Rosatom. Energia Klub is looking at it both from an environmental protection point of view and also a corruption angle. It’s a highly politicised issue, and last week a tax authority showed up unannounced to search their offices. That sends a message to all of us.In 2014 some ideas were floated by senior government officials that personal assets of the leaders of NGOs would need to be declared in the same way as politicians, because their ideas have influence on the public – which is ridiculous: we don’t get public funding and we don’t hold public office. We could have journalists, priests, whoever speaks publicly declare their assets.This phenomenon of shrinking civil space is global, one administration learns from the other, these bad ideas are copied and exported. There are modifications of what’s going on in Russia, in Egypt, in Turkey, in Azerbaijan, in Israel, in India. These are in a way ready-made messages to be adapted in a local setting. The governments, people advising the governments, are testing which issues work and which don’t. The anti-refugee hate campaign is one that can be used anywhere. It would be typical Jobbik6 messaging had it not been hijacked and mainstreamed by Fidesz. These myths and lies are everywhere, in all European settings.
- Have there been any physical attacks on the Hungarian Helsinki Committee?
- This is something we haven’t experienced in Hungary. The attacks remain online. Last summer we were getting not only a lot more media airtime because of the high attention to the whole refugee crisis, but also this kind of unwanted public attention. We were getting phone calls, emails, very nasty messages. It became a daily occurrence. Nasty messages on Facebook — for women about being raped by “niggers” and for men basically the same things and about how we should go to Israel, threats about having our children exposed, but it didn’t reach physical threats. Being funded by Soros means you are an agent of a global Jewish financial conspiracy, generally, you are all Jewish conspirators.
- Is there anything you can do to change this? Can it get worse?
- We have to make people more aware of what civil society is for, to get their attention and understanding. The Norway NGO Fund case showed that a lot of people don’t know what civil society is. Sadly, hate speech and hate crimes have increased in Hungary, it is a difficult matter. Though despite this very strong campaign after the referendum we haven’t yet seen any sudden surge of anti-migrant violence as with Brexit. But if the government keeps on pounding these anti-migrant issues we might see more of that and we have to be prepared to deal with it. Of course we have to recognise that there are a lot of xenophobic people in Hungary, we have to recognise that and we can’t reach them. There are probably a lot of things to be done in coalition building.
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|1.||Viktor Orbán is leader of the national conservative Fidesz party that has the majority of seats in the Hungarian Parliament. He has been Prime Minister of Hungary twice: 1998-2002 and currently since 2010.|
|2.||See also “Harry Hummel: The EU is built upon the assumption that all its members are grown-up democracies” by Anastasia Ovsyannikova in this issue of “Legal Dialogue”.|
|3.||One of the recent examples of this kind of rhetoric — Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on The Kossuth Radio programme “180 minutes” from 26 August 2016 http://www.miniszterelnok.hu/interview-with-prime-minister-viktor-orban-on-the-kossuth-radio-programme-180-minutes-20160826/|
|4.||“Fidesz condemns Helsinki Committee, George Soros over immigration”, Budapest Beacon, 22 May 2015, http://budapestbeacon.com/news-in-brief/fidesz-condemns-helsinki-committee-george-soros-over-immigration/23511|
|5.||“Senior Fidesz official calls for investigation into NGOs supported by Soros”, Budapest Beacon, 27 September 2016, http://budapestbeacon.com/featured-articles/senior-fidesz-official-calls-for-investigation-into-ngos-supported-by-soros/39849|
|6.||Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary is a radical nationalist political party in Hungary. It is the third biggest party in the Parliament. It calls itself ‘a principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian party’.|