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Hungarian Prime Minister Works To Turn Public Opinion Against NGOs


The Hungarian government is considering ways to limit the activities of groups that advocate for human rights, democracy and press freedom. These nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, often receive funding from abroad. And Hungary's nationalist leader says they are shadowy organizations that meddle in his government's affairs and encourage illegal activity. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has more from Budapest.


SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Employees at the downtown office of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee say they give a voice to people here who would otherwise have none. On a recent afternoon, it's a gay, Pakistani asylum-seeker who needs help.

ANDRAS LEDERER: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: The committee's Andras Lederer calls a Hungarian immigration official about paperwork he filed weeks ago on the Pakistani man's behalf.

LEDERER: Because sometimes faxes go missing and all that, and it contained quite important information. And she just confirmed that, yes, she got it. She forgot to tell me that she got it, but she has it.

NELSON: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban deems such work to be suspicious because the NGO is funded from abroad. Now, Orban wants it and other NGOs receiving $25,000 or more from foreign sources to declare that funding whenever they act. His Fidesz political party recently introduced a draft law to that effect in the Hungarian Parliament and has enough votes to pass it. Zoltan Kovacs is Orban's spokesman.

ZOLTAN KOVACS: We've been concerned especially by the activity of those so-called human rights groups who are engaged in, as they call it, asylum politics and the refugee issues. As a matter of fact, we call it illegal migrant business actually because they are actively engaged in that element of what is happening on the ground.

NELSON: Kovacs says the Hungarian Helsinki Committee in particular has, quote, "caused some concern." The NGO represented two Bangladeshi migrants who recently won a case against Hungary before the European Court of Human Rights. Orban's critics argue the draft bill is payback and that it unfairly stigmatizes groups promoting democracy and rule of law here. European officials in Brussels recently warned Orban that his government will face legal action if it persists. Hungarian Helsinki Committee co-chair Marta Pardavi says the draft law is redundant because NGOs already must disclose to the Hungarian government and the public where their funding comes from. The difference with the new measure is that they will constantly have to say they are foreign funded whenever they do anything, Pardavi says.

MARTA PARDAVI: We have to basically label ourselves as suspicious, as posing a threat to Hungary. The law itself is one step on a very dangerous path.

NELSON: One that Amnesty International last month compared to Russia's clampdown on NGOs. It's not the first time Orban has gone after Hungarian civil society, says Veronika Mora, who heads the Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation. Mora said the earlier attempt backfired and that the NGOs ended up stronger because they banded together.

VERONIKA MORA: But on the other hand, it had interestingly a chilling effect more on the organizations that were not themselves in the spotlight but who are smaller, weaker and primarily work in the countryside because those organizations are much more dependent on the local power relations.

NELSON: Orban's political allies in the European Parliament claim he is ready to end the standoff with Brussels over the controversial measure. But the Hungarian prime minister has struck a more defiant note, telling reporters nobody will set conditions for Hungary. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Budapest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.