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Hungarians Take to the Streets to Protest an Election Seen as a Hammer Blow to Democracy

Hungarians Take to the Streets to Protest an Election Seen as a Hammer Blow to Democracy
Mon, 4/16/2018 - by Robert Mackey
This article originally appeared on The Intercept

Tens of thousands of Hungarians took to the streets of Budapest on Saturday to protest what they called a deeply undemocratic election last week that delivered two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to the ruling Fidesz party which won just 47 percent of the national popular vote.

In addition to complaints about a gerrymandered electoral system that left more than half the voters without effective representation, protesters voiced concerns about the government’s near-total domination of public and private media and Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s threats to crack down on journalists and rights groups who operate independently of the state.

Protesters also expressed alarm at Orban’s shrill, nativist campaign, which focused almost entirely on racist fear-mongering over the supposed threat posed to European civilization by the tiny number of Muslim refugees allowed into the country, and labeled Hungarians who dare to offer them legal, material or emotional support enemies of the state.

One protest organizer told Peter Murphy of AFP that younger voters, who are now contemplating emigration to other European Union countries, opposed Orban’s stated goal to transform Hungary into “an illiberal state based on national foundations,” more like Russia or Turkey.

Orban’s all-out propaganda war on migration in the run-up to the election deployed fake videos to bolster claims that Muslim immigrants had rendered more tolerant parts of Western Europe violent and “dirty,” and promoted a conspiracy theory that cast opposition leaders and rights activists as secret agents in a plot hatched by George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist, to flood the country with migrants.

The prime minister had promised to make his first priority passing legislation he called the “Stop Soros” measures aimed at reining in NGOs by imposing a 25 percent tax on foreign donations and forcing them to undergo mandatory screenings by state security.

Fears that the campaign of harassment and intimidation against non-governmental organizations would only intensify after the election seemed more credible on Thursday, when a pro-government weekly, Figyelo, published the names of hundreds of civil society activists, aid workers, scholars and independent journalists — all identified as enemies of the state, based on support they had received from the Soros-funded Open Society Foundations (OSF).

The list named staff members of organizations including: the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a legal watchdog, Menedék, the Hungarian Association for Helping Migrants, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty Hungary, Direkt36, an investigative news site, and the Central European University — including two faculty members, the historian Yehuda Elkana and the philosopher Ernest Gellner, who have been dead for more than a decade.

Many of those whose names appeared on the blacklist said that they would refuse to be intimidated.

Dávid Vig, program director at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which provides legal services to asylum-seekers as part of its work, told The Intercept in an email that the blacklist was “an extreme and primitive way of creating imaginary enemies; this hatred towards critical voices aims at silencing dissent and freezing independent civic engagement.”

“Personally, I feel that it will not stop me from doing my work to protect human rights and the rule of law in Hungary,” Vig added, “but I am concerned that it may threaten HHC’s potential clients (victims of state abuse) to seek legal protection through our help.”

Vig’s colleague Anna Simai, a spokeswoman for the committee, said in a statement: “the only objective of the article and the list is fear-mongering.”

“All our activities, our finances and operations are transparent, lawful and legitimate,” she added. “We call on Figyelo and its owners to apologize to the people whose names were misused. Blacklisting must end before it’s too late.”

The editors of Figyelo did apologize on Friday, but only for accidentally including two dead men on their blacklist. They also encouraged anyone who wanted to be added to the list to submit their names by email to: online@figyelo.hu.

The director of Amnesty Hungary, Júlia Iván, whose rights group, in fact, receives no funding from Soros, denounced the list as “a clear smear campaign to discredit NGOs and intimidate them.”

“The publication of such a list, in the context of the recent election campaign, is contemptible,” Michael Ignatieff, the president and rector of Budapest’s Central European University said in a statement. “This is a flagrant attempt at intimidation that is dangerous for academic freedom and therefore for all of Hungarian academic life.”

András Kováts, the director of Menedék, explained in an interview in Budapest before the list was published that his organization had cooperated with the government to provide social and educational services to legal immigrants, helping to ease their integration into Hungarian society, without controversy for nearly two decades — until 2015, when the word “migrant” was transformed into “a swear word.”

Even though his organization received less than 5 percent of its operating budget over the past two years from the Soros foundation — and relies more on funding from the European Union and the United Nations — the government’s anti-migrant hysteria, Kováts said, had prompted an outpouring of hatred aimed at social workers, therapists and educators who work with legal immigrants.

Still, Kováts was less concerned than some others that Orban’s government really intends to eliminate non-governmental organizations. “If you want to crash NGOs, you can do it like this,” Kováts said, snapping his fingers, “in no time.” But, he said, the government might be aware of just how useful the rights activists and aid workers were as pantomime villains.

“These people are the agents of the archenemy,” Kováts said, referring to the role of aid workers in the paranoid worldview the government uses to scare voters. “And imagine, I mean, you can’t defeat the archenemy. Once you defeat the archenemy what’s next? I mean the sun rises the next day and you have to say something.”

András Petho, a founder of the mainly reader-supported news site Direkt36, which has reported on the business dealings of Orban’s family and allies, told the Associated Press that although his website has received funding from the Soros foundation, it operates with complete independence. “We’ve never had any requests or expectations expressed about our reporting or stories by the Soros fund,” Petho said, adding that Direkt36’s donors are listed on its website.

The news site even used the attack as a way to appeal to readers for more donations.

The United States Embassy in Budapest and a series of European diplomats also denounced the blacklist and spoke out in support of the civil society activists.

Conspiracy theories about Soros — which draw on anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish bankers secretly ruling the world to cast his democracy promotion in a sinister light — are popular with the American alt-right, and have previously been used to justify crackdowns on rights groups in Russia and even Israel.

Apparently unable to find actual evidence of such a conspiracy, someone who supports Orban’s government set out to manufacture proof in the run-up to the election. As The Intercept reported last week, at least 10 Hungarian rights activists or people associated with Soros appear to have been the targets of a private intelligence firm that used false names and companies to arrange meetings and then provided heavily edited, secret recordings of the subjects to two newspapers friendly to Orban, one in Budapest and the other in Jerusalem.

The Figyelo blacklist claims to identify just a small portion of the “mercenaries” working against Hungary on behalf of the billionaire. The introduction to the list says it was prompted by a secret recording of Tracie Ahern, a former executive with the Soros Fund Management, in which she was heard speculating that the philanthropist has about 2,000 people working for his charitable arm.

Ahern was clearly referring to the size of OSF’s worldwide staff (which is, in fact, about 1,700), but Orban seized upon a distorted report of that comment in a government-controlled newspaper, citing it as proof that Soros had deployed “two thousand paid workers… an entire mercenary army working to topple the government, and me personally, in order to change the future of Hungary.”

The Open Society Foundations rejected that claim as entirely fictional when it was made. This week, it also denounced the publication of the blacklist.

“Publicly listing and labeling individuals as ‘enemies of the people’ recalls the darkest times of Hungarian history — doing this to senior academics and to human rights defenders marks a new low in the ongoing effort to silence open debate in Hungary,” Laura Silber, a spokeswoman for the Soros foundations in New York, said in a statement.

“After this shameful list was published in the Hungarian weekly magazine Figyelo, the Open Society Foundations removed the names and contact details of our Budapest employees from our website, reflecting concerns about the security of our staff,” she added. “We will continue to support the work of Hungarian NGOs; we salute their courage and commitment to the values of tolerance and freedom at this most difficult time.”

Originally published by The Intercept

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