EU court rules against Hungary's NGO law

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Hungarian legislation requiring nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding to register with the government and disclose their donors violates European law, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on Thursday.

The law passed in 2017 requires all NGOs receiving foreign support over a certain amount to register themselves with authorities as "foreign-funded organizations", to disclose their donors, and to indicate on all publications and websites that they receive foreign funding. The legislation sparked mass protests in Budapest that year.

Protest against NGO law in 2017. Fotó: Botos Tamás / 444Fotó: Botos Tamás / 444

In its ruling, the ECJ declared that "Hungary has introduced discriminatory, unjustified and unnecessary restrictions on foreign donations to civil society organisations, in breach of its obligations under...the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union." The court found that “the measures...are such as to create a climate of distrust with regard to those associations and foundations.” 

Critics of the "NGO law" argued that the rules stigmatize civil organizations, restrict free speech and the right to free association, restrict the free flow of capital and violate rights to privacy and data protection. In 2017, the European Commission launched an infringement proceeding against Hungary over the law after twice calling on the government to withdraw it.

After the government refused, the case appeared before the ECJ in Luxembourg at the beginning of 2018. If the government does not amend the legislation, it could face legal sanctions and financial penalties. 

But questions remain on what steps the government will take. In January, the court's advocate general Campos Sánchez-Bordona gave a legal recommendation that the court rule against the law. In a statement, the ruling Fidesz party declared it would stand by the "law on transparency for foreign-funded Soros organizations".

The legislation is currently being examined at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg after 14 civil organizations initiated a lawsuit in January 2018. The organizations turned to the court after the Hungarian Constitutional Court failed to examine the law's constitutionality.

Reacting to the ECJ ruling, an umbrella organization for the affected NGOs, the Civilization Coalition, wrote that "the decision is particularly important for all of Hungarian society, because the Hungarian government has for years been trying to undermine non-governmental organizations working for the common good".

Parliament votes unanimously to end state of emergency

In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the Parliament approved a law which authorizes the revocation of the state of emergency declared in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which the government says would bring an end to controversial rule-by-decree powers.

In a press conference on Thursday, the prime minister's chief of staff Gergely Gulyás announced that the state of emergency was officially revoked at midnight on Wednesday, 98 days after its declaration in March.

In addition to the law on terminating the state of emergency, Parliament passed a new package of transitional provisions which authorizes the government to declare a new "state of medical crisis", and makes changes to the Disaster Management act which legal observers say would restore many of the extraordinary powers granted to the government by the previous coronavirus Authorization Act.

Under the new legislation, passed 135-54 with three abstentions, a "state of medical crisis" may be declared by the government on the recommendation of Hungary's chief medical officer Cecilia Müller. The crisis could be declared in the case of "a public health or epidemiological emergency of international proportions", or if conditions arise that "endanger people's lives, physical well-being or the provision of health care". 

Chief Medical Officer Cecilia Müller.Fotó:ár Gergely/MTI/MTVA

According to an analysis by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, under a state of medical crisis the government may enact decrees without approval by the Parliament which would remain in force for the duration of the crisis. The state of crisis may remain in effect for six months, but can be extended indefinitely by the government if the conditions for ordering it still prevail.

Additionally, changes to the Disaster Management Act also grant the government special powers to enact decrees in a state of emergency without parliamentary approval, to suspend the application of certain acts of Parliament, and to derogate from existing laws.

According to legal observers, these changes to the Disaster Management Act widely broaden the scope of the government's decree powers, and are essentially identical with those outlined in the coronavirus Authorization Act. Such decrees may be in effect for 15 days, after which they can be extended by the Parliament in which the governing coalition has a two-thirds supermajority.

Constitutional Court: fear mongering provisions compatible with Fundamental Law

The Constitutional Court has ruled that controversial changes to the criminal code regulating the spreading of false information are compatible with Hungary's constitution, the Fundamental Law. 

The court argued that speech can be criminally sanctioned only during the state of emergency, and if certain conditions are met, including:

  • the accused knew at the time of spreading the information or claim that it was false
  • the accused themselves distorted the information
  • the claim was suitable for obstructing or frustrating the defense against the emergency.

Changes to the criminal provisions affecting fear mongering and spreading of false information were passed by Parliament through the coronavirus Authorization Act in late March. Critics argued the changes would disproportionately limit freedom of speech, and several requests were filed for the Constitutional Court to examine the legislation. The Court wrote that the provisions do not limit freedom of speech or expressions of opinion and are narrow in scope. 

During the state of emergency, police were dispatched to apprehend several citizens on suspicion of fear mongering for posts they made on social media. Those cases were later dropped, and the government argued the procedures had been launched based on misunderstandings of the law rather than its scope being too broad. 

Fidesz Budapest chapter posts photograph comparing Karácsony to Hungary's fascist leader

A meme appeared on the Facebook page of Fidesz's Budapest chapter on Wednesday which featured the face of Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony imposed on the body of Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of Hungary's fascist Arrow Cross party and leader of the nation during the last months of the Second World War.

The meme on the "Fidesz Budapest" Facebook page.

The original photograph, in which the Nazi collaborator gazes at the Danube after the destruction of the Chain Bridge, visible in the background, is among the most famous Hungarian historical photographs.

The meme appeared to be a criticism of Karácsony for delays in the renovation of the Chain Bridge. The caption on the meme reads, "We should put a bike lane here", a reference to the mayor's campaign to make the city more bike friendly. 

The photograph was removed from the page after several hours.

Mayor Karácsony reacted to the meme on his Facebook page, writing, "This isn't politics, this isn't a debate, this is lowly and stupid and the kind of hatred which has no place in Budapest, in the country, or in any political argument". 

Fidesz claimed that it had not created the meme but taken it from the internet, and that the page's editor had not noticed that the original photograph was of Szálasi. The party's Budapest chapter wrote that Karácsony's reaction to the meme was an attempt to distract attention from his incompetence and discredit his critics, "an old, proven Bolshevik tactic". 

The original photograph of Arrow Cross Party leader Ferenc Szálasi.

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