Hungarian Civil Society under Attack

Hungarian Civil Society under Attack

An Interview with Veronika Móra

I have interviewed Veronika Móra, Director of Ökotárs Foundation concerning the Government Control Office’s (KEHI) ongoing investigation into Ökotárs’s operation. Ökotárs is the Norwegian NGO Fund’ national operator foundation in Hungary, and is accused of being politically biased with regard to the decision on who receives support from the fund. And even though the donors warned KEHI, that “the audit most stop”, the investigation has not stopped and probably will not halfway through.

Have some signs preceded this year’s attacks?

Not really, last year only two articles were published in Heti Válasz. The first speculated that some winning organizations were connected to political party “Politics Can Be Different” (LMP), the second elaborated on George Soros’s alleged influence. These didn’t receive a high-profile coverage then, but were repeated this year. An article was also published in Magyar Nemzet on 8 April 2014, which stated that János Lázár (then as Secretary of the State) had sent a letter to his Norwegian colleague, so the situation reached another level.

What can be the reasons?

Obviously, they are the ones who should be asked…

But regarding signs I also have to mention the selection process of the Norwegian NGO Fund’s national operator foundation, which didn’t receive any media coverage that time but has been brought up a lot recently. The Financial Mechanism Office (FMO) announced an open call for tenders in 2011, in the first round of which they examined the candidates’ competence along three criteria: state independence, having knowledge of the civil sector as well as application management and grant-making. Among our six rivals were such organizations like Századvég Alapítvány or VÁTI Non-profit Ltd, which is owned by the state, but we didn’t know about them that time.

The decision on choosing the national operator foundation was made by the donors — and the FMO on their behalf — but the Hungarian government had consultation rights. An exchange of letters between our government and the donors revealed that the former wasn’t pleased with the decision but they couldn’t find anything that didn’t comply with the rules. Based on the exchange of letters, the Norwegians / donors said that the decision on letting only Ökortárs go to the next round was in line with the criteria. This didn’t receive media coverage then, but it was quite obvious that the government wasn’t pleased with the fact that Ökotárs had been selected.

They aren’t happy about the fact either that the Norwegian NGO Fund supports such organizations that are always critical of the government in office, which is certainly natural if we look at the fund’s aims: protection of human rights, advocacy, good governance, social participation, equal treatment of women, strengthening socially vulnerable groups etc.

So it’s logical if we work out calls and operate grant programmes along these principles, then those organizations will be granted that are critical of the government. But this was known from the start, and by signing the bilateral cooperation agreement the Hungarian government accepted that the donors and the FMO would decide on the national operator.

So, is the entire attack against the civil society itself?

We can only speculate on this because we don’t have any concrete information, but it can be easily interpreted as an attack against that part of the civil society that is critical of the government and not willing to toe the line, especially based on the infamous speech given at Tusványos. This is enhanced by the fact that at first, the Government Control Office’s (KEHI) audit concerned only us, but then it was expanded to other 58 organizations, among of which some of the previously mentioned women’s rights defenders and LGBT organizations, etc. had been appeared once again.

What stage of the investigation is currently going on?

KEHI has already quite a few times requested documents from us, some of which are related to the foundation’s own costs and expenses. We have sent them in, but those that contain information on the other 58 organizations’ project documentation or rejected tenders we haven’t. Nevertheless, we’ve constantly expressed and indicated that based on both the Norwegian NGO Fund’s regulations and the national legislation, we don’t consider the audit legitimate and well-founded.

What kind of result can be expected?

I have no idea, but it can be seen that KEHI is going into details with its additional data requests — they would like to find something. Apparently, no organization functions perfectly, and therefore they might find some administrative certificates that are incomplete. However, I dare say it to anyone that our operation is fully in line with the legislation, our contract and the aims.

Update: The investigation ended with no results, and therefore it was closed.

The interview was done in 2014 with the purpose of publishing it in a magazine called NGO Magazine. However, that issue never got published.

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