September 24, 2018; Reuters
Though the Budapest-based operations of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations were recently forced out of Hungary, the battle between Soros and Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán continues and will now move to the courts.
As Krisztina Than reported for Reuters on Monday, the Foundations will challenge new Hungarian laws at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. The “Stop Soros” legislation was passed in June to restrict operations of foreign-funded NGOs and supposedly curtail immigration to bolster Hungary’s “Christian culture.” The Hungarian branch of the Foundations announced that its office would be moved from Budapest to Berlin in May, after 30 years of work, in anticipation of the laws proposed by Orbán’s Fidesz party.
“Under legislation named ‘Stop Soros,’ [sic] anybody who helps migrants not entitled to protection to apply for asylum, or helps illegal migrants gain status to stay in Hungary, can be jailed,” Than wrote. “Orbán has also introduced a 25-percent special tax on aid groups it says support migration.”
For context, note that by the end of 2017, there were 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, or violence, according to a report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. While nearly 30,000 migrants applied for asylum in Hungary in 2016, according to International Organization for Migration in Budapest, as the government has built border fences and passed legislation to reduce migration, the number entering Hungary dropped to less than 4,000 in 2017 and only 280 asylum applications in the first quarter of 2018. Meanwhile, in the US, the Trump administration has proposed that only 30,000 refugees be allowed into the country in 2019—a record low.
To the Foundations, nothing less than the future of democracy is at stake in Hungary, according to a press release:
On an application before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, Open Society argues that the recent legislation breaches the guarantees of freedom of expression and association enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights and must be repealed. The complaint also argues that the legal provisions are so broadly written that they will have a far-reaching and chilling effect on the work of civil society far beyond the field of migration.…
The new legislation includes an amendment to the Hungarian criminal code that makes it illegal for individuals or civil society organizations to support asylum or residence applications.
As NPQ has reported, Hungarian-born Soros is the face of the Foundations, having given more than $18 billion to the international network of organizations in 42 countries, founded in 1979. The progressive philanthropist was ranked last year by Forbes as the 20th-wealthiest American, with an estimated net worth of $8.3 billion.
According to Reuters, the Hungarian government defended the asylum legislation despite strong criticism from the United Nations refugee agency and the European Union. The EU’s parliament had rebuked Hungary for violating democratic norms earlier this month in a historic vote.
But, because the cogs of the justice system move slowly—the New York Times reported that the EU vote was only “a first step toward potential sanctions”—Hungary’s civil society is still very much at risk.
Indeed, Reuters also reported this week that another independent media outlet in Hungary was bought out by new owners. Journalists at Index.hu are fearful for the site’s future independence:
An EU parliamentary report said media had been concentrated in the hands of pro-Orbán oligarchs, state-funded advertising went largely to outlets loyal to the government and other journalists were often banned from parliament.
Hungary’s government has denied undermining press freedom and says it has no desire to control the media. It is taking the EU Parliament to court, accusing it of breaching voting rules.
And, the situation is a lesson for other countries, as New York Times opinion writer Celestine Bohlen writes.
As it turns out, the Hungarian government has little need for the full-blown censorship that existed under communism. Islands of independent news gathering still exist, such as the left-leaning newspaper Nepszava, several weeklies and the popular RTL television station, which is German-owned. But in the face of the powerful pro-government machine, neutral or opposition voices are muted and, with the exception of RTL, have a limited range.
The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but as Soros has discovered, it still needs a lot of pushing.—Anna Berry