BUDAPEST — Defying warnings from the European Union and pleas by advocates for civil and political rights, Hungary’s right-wing government passed legislation on Tuesday to require nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign financing to identify themselves as such and to disclose their donors.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose Fidesz party has moved Hungary in an increasingly illiberal direction, says the law will promote openness and help prevent money laundering and terrorist financing. But critics say it is intended mainly to stifle independent points of view and to stigmatize as unpatriotic those groups that receive support from Western philanthropists and foundations.
Critics have compared the move — debated for weeks in Parliament — to a 2012 law in Russia that required nonprofit groups that received foreign financing to identify themselves as “foreign agents.” The new Hungarian law comes weeks after the Orban government passed a law that threatened to close Central European University, which was founded by the Hungarian-American financier George Soros.
Mr. Orban drew a link between the new legislation and Mr. Soros, a major funder of programs that promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
“There is an important element in public life in Hungary which is not transparent and not open — and that is the Soros network, with its mafia-style operation and its agentlike organizations,” Mr. Orban said on state radio this month, referring to the philanthropic Open Society Foundations financed by Mr. Soros.
“The Hungarian people,” Mr. Orban added, “have the right to know who represents what and to what end, and what goals they seek to achieve through their operations.”
Political opponents said Mr. Orban’s government should itself be scrutinized for its ties to Russia.
“We should not be afraid of the NGOs but rather of the members of Parliament who represent Russian interests,” said Erzsebet Schmuck, an opposition lawmaker, referring to nongovernmental organizations.
Csaba Toth, an analyst at Republikon Institute, a policy research firm in Budapest, said the law had galvanized political opposition. “There is no anti-NGO or anti-foreigner sentiment in Hungarian society, which is widely pro-European,” he said, noting that recent street protests in support of the groups had drawn thousands of participants.
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe director, referring to nongovernmental organizations, said that “threadbare attempts to disguise this law as being necessary to protect national security cannot hide its real purpose: to stigmatize, discredit and intimidate critical NGOs and hamper their vital work.”
“This latest assault on civil society,” he added, “is aimed at silencing critical voices within the country, has ominous echoes of Russian’s draconian ‘foreign agents’ law and is a dark day for Hungary.”
In a statement, the Open Society Foundations said the law “attacks the very organizations that champion accountability, challenge corruption and the abuse of power. These organizations stand up for the rights of all Hungarians and work to defend freedom of expression and assembly.” It said the group already provided plenty of information about its finances, including a searchable database of all grants made over the last two years.
The European Union has protested Hungarian efforts to restrict freedoms but with little effect thus far. Mr. Orban, who has frequently railed against the European Union, initiated a referendum last autumn to reject participation in the bloc’s plan to require its 28 member countries to accept a fair share of the refugees and asylum seekers trying to enter the Continent; the turnout was too low for a valid result.
More recently, the Hungarian government circulated a nationwide questionnaire, under the slogan “Let’s Stop Brussels,” to consult citizens on European Union policy. One section stated: “More and more organizations that are funded from abroad are working in Hungary with the goal of meddling in domestic affairs in a untransparent way. Those operations can be a danger to our independence.” It then asked whether respondents thought the government should require such groups to register or to allow them to continue “their hazardous operations without control.”
Critics called the exercise laughable.
Evaluating an earlier draft of the Hungarian legislation, the Venice Commission, which advises the Council of Europe, a human rights body, on constitutional matters, said this month that while “ensuring transparency of civil society” was a legitimate aim, the law had to be examined “in the context of a virulent campaign carried out by some Hungarian authorities against foreign-funded NGOs.” It said the law “may raise a concern of discriminatory treatment.”
Legislators made some amendments after that report. For example, the identity of any single foreign donor of up to 500,000 forints, or $1,800, will not have to be published.
However, Marta Pardavi, from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization, said the amendments were “just cosmetic” and predicted that the law would intimidate hundreds of rights groups that operate in Hungary. The regulations will apply to groups that get more than 7.2 million forints, or $26,200, a year from foreign sources.
Organizations that fail to comply with the law could be fined or dissolved.
Hatter Society, a group that supports Hungarian gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, gets more than 90 percent of its funding from abroad.
Tamas Dombos, a board member, said he was worried that the government efforts to “change the public perception of foreign-funded NGOs as being foreign agents might eventually have an impact, though so far we have seen none.”
Mr. Dombos said his group was already committed to financial openness, disclosing its sources of income in its annual reports.
“This law is obviously not about transparency,” he said. “The result is that we’ll have to deal with a lot more bureaucracy — and this could be part of the government’s strategy. The goal is to make the work of NGOs that are critical of the government much harder, if not impossible.”