How Governments Close Civic Space: Lessons from Hungary

Civic engagement, including that by civil society organization (CSOs), in governance is the bedrock of democracy. An informed and active citizenry, particularly skilled and engaged CSOs, have the potential power to strengthen public policies, promote the interests of the people, and hold elected officials accountable. CSOs — often in collaboration with government and the international community — have supported public participation in government decision making and oversight, advocated successfully for transparency and accountability, and defended human rights.

But what happens when governments turn their back on their democratic partners? Signs of regression in democratic practices have been widespread for several years, but its consolidation has accelerated in a disturbing manner. Trusted champions of open government are being replaced by regimes threatening to reverse years of progress in open data, vigorous citizen participation, and the promise of enhanced government accountability. We see governments once open to partnership with civil society groups now actively monitoring and undermining CSOs. And, as this global trend toward closing civic spaces continues, many organizations are forced to reevaluate how they engage with government in order to retain their ability to defend the interests of the people.

András Kádár is co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), a leading nongovernmental watchdog organization that protects human dignity and the rule of law through legal and public advocacy methods. In November 2017, OpenGov Hub invited Kádár to discuss how CSOs like HHC are dealing with the deteriorating political environment in Hungary, as well as to offer broader lessons and warnings for civil society actors in other countries. Kádár described closing civic space in Hungary as a calculated effort by the government to discredit and shut down civil society organizations — and described specific efforts by the government to consolidate power and eliminate opposition. (Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s has expressed wanting to abandon liberal democracy in favor of an “illiberal state,” citing Russia and Turkey as examples.)

Elimination of Checks and Balances

Following Orban’s party and allies winning a two-thirds majority in the 2010 elections, the new government adopted a new constitution with the express objective of weakening the state institutions meant to function as checks on the executive. The new constitution significantly curtailed the power of the constitutional court and reduced the number of ombudsmen protecting specific human rights. Orban’s government also removed senior judges and prosecutors, including the Supreme Court President, eventually replacing them with Orban’s own picks of young loyalists.

The government then turned its focus to the media. In 2010-2011, Hungary adopted a series of laws threatening the free press, including a mandate for media outlets to register with the government-controlled national authority. Orban and his allies acquired national and regional newspapers, magazines, and television and radio channels, quickly converting them from critical, independent media channels to mouthpieces for the Hungarian government. Dissenters at the outlets were quickly dismissed and replaced.

Campaign to Discredit Civil Society Organizations

Kádár reported that it was clear from the moment the new government was elected that an attack on Hungarian civil society was imminent, after a prominent official declared a “war on NGOs” (nongovernmental organizations). Mounting a multifaceted and complex attack, the government pursued a campaign to undermine CSOs’ every move. Almost 100 organizations were examined by a multitude of government agencies, including the government control office, the tax authority, and the justice department. It was not surprising to those in the country that nothing untoward was found in the practices of any of the civil society groups.

Several laws were passed mandating that foreign-funded CSOs register and provide detailed information about their funding, even though most of this information was already provided through various mediums. These mandates were often made under the guise of government prioritizing “transparency,” demonstrating how governments often adopt the rhetoric of transparency champions to justify restrictions and disclosure demands on civil society groups. Organizations were forced to indicate their status as “foreign-funded” on every publication. Using this language, the government repeatedly suggested to the public that CSOs are untrustworthy “foreign agents” that could threaten the interests of Hungary and Hungarian citizens. Groups that refused to register were levied with hefty fines, and many times threatened with lawsuits that could result in the organization’s disbandment.

This campaign also resulted in a complete breakdown of meaningful cooperation between government and civil society organizations. Collaboration was eliminated in many forms, including the termination of cooperation agreements between agencies and groups, and the rejection of proposals for new projects and joint participation in conferences. CSOs have little recourse but to sue the government repeatedly in an effort to engage and effect change.

The Hungarian government has also used the media to push its agenda against civil society. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee alone faced six critical articles by major newspapers in one day. Many articles trafficked in outright lies, forcing groups to choose between fighting back with civil lawsuits and using their limited resources to do important work.

Engaging Government Differently

Closing civic space demands a strong response. But, how can we push back? Governments attempting to scale back democratic institutions and civic rights have many weapons to use against the public and their civil society partners. Civil society must be equally prepared to utilize every tool at their disposal to continue defending human rights and democracy. A 2017 collection of essays by IBP examines evidence of how to pursue accountability from government in a tougher political environment. The following are some key ways that civil society can engage government differently:

  • Partnership between CSOs and Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) can be a check on the executive and legislative branches. Nearly every country in the world has a functional SAI that is mandated with checking whether public funds are being managed properly and in line with sound financial management practices. These actors are powerful allies for CSOs, who can work together to hold government accountable on spending public resources. Read more »
  • Collaborative networks are more important than ever. Effective partnership between CSOs, NGOs, and other likeminded actors is critical. Civil society is a space in which many groups are campaigning with different goals, but these groups may need to form new alliances through which to challenge government, if they are to effectively pursue their shared interests. Read more »
  • Use of the court system. In recent years many CSOs have appealed to courts for access to information from governments under Right to Information laws, and to challenge government policies and practices. Accessing courts can be resource-intensive and time consuming, but it is a valuable tool when administrative channels have failed and efforts to engage have been exhausted. Read more »

Further Reading

2016 International Budget Partnership Annual Report“That’s How the Light Gets In”: Making Change in Closing Political Environments

This collection of essays — a companion to IBP’s 2016 Annual Report — examines evidence of how to pursue fiscal accountability in tougher political environments.
Download »

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