Budapest, Hungary – The Hungarian government is facing fresh accusations that it is trying to repress critical voices. In the past week, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have faced raids, a news editor was dismissed – allegedly for political reasons – and traditionally pro-government media outlets have protested against an advertising tax.
Last Monday, government authorities went to the offices of three NGOs asking for documents related to grants the groups had received from Norway.
“We had no choice but to hand over … the documents,” said Veronika Mora, the director of Okotars, an NGO that distributed the grants to other groups and is now being accused by the government of having links to Hungary’s leftist opposition party Politics Can Be Different (LMP).
Mora said that while her organisation was notified that authorities would visit that day, officials went to the other NGOs unannounced.
She said she believed that the raids were politically motivated and that the issue stems back to a disagreement between Norway and Hungary, when the latter changed how foreign development funds were managed.
Norwegian donors did not accept the reforms and now, Mora said, the Hungarian government wants to use the NGOs in negotiations over the new system. “[It’s] a good occasion for them to attack those NGOs that are critical of the government, but these NGOs … are critical of all the governments.”
In an emailed response to Al Jazeera, Hungary’s International Communications Office stated that it did not have an issue with the ideological positions of groups that were given money. However, it stated that authorities needed to investigate if an organisation distributing funds was acting on political interests. “The activities of [Okotars] attest to political prejudice … The relationship between [Okotars] and the LMP party has already been proven; they are linked with regard to both their organisation and staff.”
The government plans to audit Okotars. Since several groups had documents related to the grants, they will all undergo “on-site monitoring”.
I am deeply concerned about the actions of the Hungarian authorities in relation to civil society and their attempts to limit freedom of expression.
Norway argued that donor countries were responsible for audits according to the agreement Hungary entered into regarding the grants programme.
“I am deeply concerned about the actions of the Hungarian authorities in relation to civil society and their attempts to limit freedom of expression,” Norway’s Minister of EU Affairs Vidar Helgesen said in a press release.
LMP’s co-chair Bernadett Szel rejected the claim that her party received money from the grants or NGOs. She conceded that people involved with her party later worked for Okotars, but said that no one worked for both groups at the same time. “Our assessment is that Minister Lazar is just disturbed by the fact that there is a stream of funding over which he has no control,” said Szel.
The Hungarian government has compiled a list of organisations that received money from the grants and which are thought to be problematic due to “leftist political ties”, Reuters reported.
Attila Mong, a member of the board of the investigative website Atlatszo.hu, which was also on the list, believes the government is stigmatising NGOs. “Every organisation is targeted which is independent from the government, because I think it’s very much like a Putinist attack against civil society,” he said. The state’s aim is to bully donors into cutting funding for independent organisations, he said.
Gero Martin, a research fellow at ELTE University’s sociology department in Budapest, said that while a debate over the independence of NGOs has been going on for years, authorities are now actually taking action. “To pick up some organisations and investigate them based on political suspicions, this is not normal.”
He believes targeted organisations have been using their funds properly. “The [government’s] tendencies refer to quite a strong will to cut somehow most of the independent sources of [criticism].”
Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been accused, by the United States and others, of undermining democratic checks and balances.
Meanwhile, fears of eroding press freedoms have also surfaced after parliament approved a new tax on advertisements. Though the tax was first proposed just last week, a fast-track procedure allowed it to quickly become law.
The left-leaning media outlet RTL claimed it was the main target of the tax, because it would be the only one in the highest tax bracket. But even news companies generally considered to be pro-government protested against the tax by printing blank pages or broadcasting blank screens, arguing that the tax would hamper press freedom.
In an emailed statement to Al Jazeera, the government said that “the argument behind the new tax is ensuring a proportionate sharing of public burdens … there is no intention whatsoever to treat any media outlets unfairly”.
Eva Bognar of the Center for Media and Communications Studies at Budapest’s Central European University, said advertising can offer sustenance for independent media outlets which, unlike state-owned media, cannot rely on the government. “Some more independent outlets would be in trouble” because of the tax, Bognar said.
‘You can say I was dismissed’
Also last week, the editor of a news website was dismissed, reportedly due to political pressure over a story it published about alleged excessive expenses by Orban’s chief-of-staff Janos Lazar.
The former editor of Origo.hu, Gergo Saling, told Al Jazeera, “It was a mutual agreement but it was not proposed by me … You can [legally] say I was dismissed.” Saling said he could not go into the details of the agreement.
The government declined to answer questions from Al Jazeera about the matter, saying Lazar has already commented on it.
What we can see is clear political meddling into Origo's activities.
Hungary’s state news agency reported that Lazar said in a statement, “I’m asking the outgoing editor-in-chief of Origo – with whom as far as I can remember I have never spoken or met – to say publicly when, with whom and how I put pressure to get him dismissed. If he is unable to do so … he should firmly deny these rumours.”
Saling declined to respond to that statement.
Bognar said she believes this was a cynical move by Lazar, because the journalist may be contractually forbidden from saying anything, and that Lazar did not have to be directly involved for there to have been political pressure.
Origo stated in a press release that Saling’s replacement was due to restructuring and not political pressure. Magyar Telekom, which owns Origo, strongly rejected a local report that the company pressured the news website into firing Saling over a business deal with the government.
Deutsche Telekom, the German company that owns the majority of Magyar Telekom, also dismissed the claims of political pressure.
However, a journalist with Origo who requested to remain anonymous said the Lazar story did indeed play a part in the firing. “Saling was forced out for political reasons,” the journalist said. “The official explanation … based on what I know and what I’ve seen – it’s not true.”
The journalist said reporters at Origo faced political pressure even before Orban’s Fidesz party came to power. However, he added that this pressure has intensified in recent years and that the company was no longer as capable of protecting its journalists.
Bognar claimed that Magyar Telekom wanted to appease the government in hopes of getting a tender for broadband services. “The Origo case is really worrying,” she said, adding that it appears as if online media and foreign-owned companies are being strongly influenced by the government. “The government is using different means … to make critical voices either harder to hear, harder to access [or] preferably just non-existent.”
Atlatszo’s Mong, who used to be an editor at Origo, stated that the news outlet had earlier proved it could remain independent despite being owned by Magyar Telekom. However, the dismissal of Saling has changed that.
“This case clearly proves that this period is ending and … what we can see is clear political meddling into Origo’s activities.”