I wanted to become a lawyer since I was a child. My parents got annoyed many times, because I never missed a chance to stand up for the weakest, be that a classmate, a stranger or a stray dog. My natural choice – or so I thought – was to go to law school and become an attorney, so I could protect vulnerable people. My first days at law school were sobering. Most of my classmates’ priority was to earn a lot of money and my teachers did not mention the word “justice” in their welcoming speeches once. I thought about dropping out because I did not want to spend so many years becoming someone who did not find purpose in their life. I ended up sticking it out though, after reading an article about the reproductive rights of women that quoted the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), and they really spoke the language I was looking for. I applied as an intern at the HCLU 12 years ago, and the organization has given me my profession, not only a workplace.
At HCLU we educate citizens about their basic human rights and freedoms, and take a stand against undue interference and the misuse of power by those in positions of authority. In 2016, we provided representation in over 120 individual cases to Hungarian citizens, people with disabilities, journalists, local activists, patients and parents. However, this organization is now earmarked as one of the NGOs that are to be “swept out”.
The National Anti-Corruption Program governmental decree and planned legislation proposes 1 to increase the transparency 2 of Hungarian civil society organizations by introducing mandatory asset declarations for organization leaders. This is proposed by a government whose members and associates are often ridiculed because of their abuse of public funds for their own enrichment, and the insincerity of their own asset declarations. Until now no legislative proposal was made public, instead there are new and new ideas floated weekly by various government officials about ways to increase NGO transparency. The ideas vary between simply stigmatizing NGOs and proposing the disclosure of information and data already available in our annual reports. However, these pushes for more NGO transparency should not mislead; all of these proposals are wrapped in a rhetoric that unveils their real purpose: to sweep out those organizations that campaign for a just society and responsible, transparent government. The rhetoric and the tactics can be familiar from Israel or Russia.
Those organizations earmarked by the governing Fidesz party are the ones receiving funds from the Open Society Foundations, founded by Gyorgy Soros. In early January, the governing party’s vice president, Németh Szilárd declared 3 that those organizations with links to Soros shall be swept out from the country. This statement was predated by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s end of the year interview. 4 that set the tone for 2017, in which he promised that, “in the coming year, Soros and his forces will be squeezed out.”
To be clear, this is not a cry on behalf of our organizations. It is not about us in this narrow sense. The issue at stake concerns all Hungarian citizens, because the organizations named represent the interest and rights of us, citizens. They represent us, citizens, when documenting the misuse of public money, when providing legal representation to people speaking up about the terrible conditions in hospitals, 5 or when protecting the rights of minorities, like the Roma or people with disabilities. These organizations provide legal representation to those active citizens who demand a say in pubic matters. Furthermore, these organizations provide social and educational services from the infamous Soros funds that shall not be provided by the Hungarian state. One does not have to agree with everything these organizations do to believe that strengthening the voice of the vulnerable is absolutely necessary.
When the government wants these organizations eliminated, they are sending the following messages loud and clear: Firstly, that they are not interested in hearing about Hungarian citizens’ problems, or in providing solutions to the people they were elected to represent; Secondly, that the only welcomed opinion about public affairs is the one praising the track record of the Hungarian government.
To makes matters worse, the campaign against our organizations will impact the future in one more way. It is hugely problematic if a nation’s government considers those professionals that devote their carriers to the protection of fellow citizens or principles of democracy to be rubbish. The lawyers, communication experts, sociologists, social workers and even the financial staff of these organization are people who care more about righting wrongs, than earning as much money and reputation as their peers. It is bewildering, that these professionals are considered garbage that needs to be swept out. The message is clear to those young Hungarians about to choose a profession: think twice before you devote your carrier to championing a just society based on fundamental rights. The campaign also deters the next generations from wanting to work for justice and democracy. Like I did.
- Peter Murphy, “Hungary set to turn screws on Soros-backed NGOs,” AFP, January 17, 2017, https://yhoo.it/2j4Mfyt (accessed January 31, 2017). ↩
- “Hollik István: A civil szervezetek vezetőinek olyan vagyonnyilatkozatot kell majd tenniük, mint a képviselőknek és az államtitkároknak,” 444.hu. January 11, 2017, http://bit.ly/2lp5epl (accessed January 31, 2017). ↩
- “Németh Szilárd megnevezte, milyen civileket akarnak eltakarítani az útból,” Index.hu, January 11, 2017, http://bit.ly/2lHHoHH (accessed January 31, 2017). ↩
- “2017 a lazadas eve lesz,” Mandiner.hu, December 16, 2016, http://bit.ly/2lFM8xV (accessed January 31 2017) ↩
- “Kormány vs. civilek – kutatás,” Publicus Intézet, January 21, 2017, http://bit.ly/2m2vrx0 (accessed February 5, 2017). ↩