- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 19, 2017

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) - Hungarian lawmakers began debating a draft bill on Wednesday that critics say is meant to intimidate non-governmental organizations which receive foreign financing.

Among other conditions, NGOs getting more than 7.2 million forints ($24,600) a year from abroad would have to register with the courts and identify themselves as being foreign-funded on their websites and publications. Failure to comply could lead to fines or termination of the groups.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, one of the affected NGOs, said that the law was “devastating.”

The proposal “is another attempt by the government to silence public opinion on public matters,” the organization said. “The bill … is devastating. It will have a chilling effect on independent opinions on the government’s affairs and it hands the government a tool to suppress differing opinions.”

Lawmakers from Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party said that the only aim of the law was to achieve greater transparency in the civil sector.

Fidesz claims that some of the NGOs in question, like rights advocate the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and corruption watchdog Transparency International, are “foreign agents” and part of a network financed by billionaire George Soros to influence Hungarian politics.

“The Soros empire set out to promote the cause of migrants and mass migration,” Orban said Sunday on state radio. “This is now about the security of the Hungarian people, the security of Hungary, the protection of the borders, public security and terrorism. On this there can be no compromise.”

Orban is staunchly anti-migration, with Hungary building razor-wire fences on its southern borders in 2015 to stop the flow of migrants passing through the country on their way to Western Europe.

The Helsinki Committee, for example, has earned the government’s wrath because it offers legal counsel to asylum-seekers and recently represented two men from Bangladesh who won a judgment against Hungary at the European Court of Human Rights after they were expelled illegally to Serbia in 2015.

Members of the opposition compared the legislation to similar rules introduced in Russia and efforts by Hungary’s communist regime, which ended in 1990.

“This law not only wants to make enemies of the civic groups but also seeks to destroy them morally,” said Erzsebet Schmuck of the green party Politics Can Be Different.

Religious and sports organizations, as well as certain funding received from the European Union would be exempt from the law, expected to be passed next month.

The NGO law comes on the back of amendments to a law on higher education, passed two weeks ago, which were seen as targeting Budapest-based Central European University, founded by Soros in 1991.

The U.S. State Department, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, as well as hundreds of Hungarian and foreign academics and dozens of universities protested the “lex CEU,” which opposition lawmakers announced they would appeal to the Constitutional Court.

The recent legislation has also earned criticism from conservative groups usually supportive of Orban and even U.S. backers of Hungarian causes.

“Regrettably … the Hungarian government has chosen to focus energy on the ill-conceived legislation attacking NGOs and the prestigious American university, CEU, which is quickly deteriorating bilateral relations,” said Maximilian Teleki, president emeritus of the nonprofit Hungarian American Coalition based in Washington. “This is yet another unforced error that is deeply concerning to the Hungarian-American diaspora.”

Numerous rallies over the past weeks in Budapest opposing the two laws have been presented by the government as proof that despite the opposition’s criticism of Orban’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies, Hungary remains a healthy democracy.

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