In Their Own Words: Márta Pardavi, co-president of the Helsinki Committee, speaks on the latest controversial legislation passed by the Hungarian parliament
Photo: Márta Pardavi, co-president of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to defending human rights and the rule of law.
Márta Pardavi spoke to foreign journalists about the then pending legislation dubbed the Sovereignty Defence/Protection Act on November 30, 2023. This is a slightly edited transcription of her introductory summary of the act.
"As so many laws recently – and this is also a package that contains, again an amendment to the Fundamental Law, the twelfth amendment -it's [been] done in a way that lacked, completely, legal and public consultation.
"I think that this report that was disclosed in a declassified but redacted way in June from the National Information Centre, is a launchpad for this legislative proposal, but it actually follows, of course, a series of other legislation.
"We can name a few that targeted civil society organisations from 2017-8, but there are others too, which are hallmarks of this illiberal regime, and most of them lacked, completely, any public consultation.
"So this, in a way, is a surprise, because no one knew what this would be, but in a way it is not a surprise, because it's been talked about for such a long time. But the fact that the legislative process is already faulty I think underscores the point that this is a political project.
"The twelfth amendment to the Fundamental Law talks about creating an independent agency or office in the interest of protecting [sovereignty].
"This agency is established in a cardinal law, and this makes it really, really hard for anyone [government] in the future who doesn't have a two-thirds majority to change it, or to do away with it.
"So, it's pretty much ingrained, once this is passed in parliament, into Hungary's legal system.
"This legislation is composed of two parts: one, there is a change to the criminal code, the penal code, and that talks about criminalising the use of foreign funding during the political campaign during an election by organisations that nominate candidates or by candidates running for office themselves.
"This was already prohibited, but it didn't carry a criminal sanction, now it's envisioned to be punishable by [up to] three years of imprisonment. And this will not only concern general elections, but of course it is something applicable to municipal elections and the EP [election] campaign. [The European Parliament election is scheduled for 9 June.]
"And when we talk about who's allowed to nominate, to field a candidate under Hungarian law, there are opportunities in municipal elections for civil society organisations to nominate candidates, to support their campaigns, and they have to register as a nominating organisation, so they also come under the remit of this law.
"Now, the Office to Defend Sovereignty is this new, independent agency, which has basically two main tasks: to do general defending of Hungarian sovereignty, and also to carry out individual investigations.
"And it does this by adopting a risk-assessment methodology and then, based on this, looking at the various risks and threats to national sovereignty.
"It's not state sovereignty that is used here, but national sovereignty, which is again a new concept without real, [clear] meaning.
"And, based on this risk-assessment method, it carries out an analysis, it can put forward recommendations, it can also put forward proposals about what to do about the identified threats, it can also carry out and finance research, it will have a distinct research unit, and it will also publish an annual report.
"Now, you would think that this is something that flows from what the European Commission has been talking about*, in various ways, about malign influence and disinformation, but we don't really see how this office will actually echo the task or the concerns of EU level initiatives, or member states.
[* Since this address, this has become a proposal. See: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_23_6453 ]
"What comes out very clearly is that this office is tasked with looking at what Hungarians are doing and what is happening in Hungary.
"But, when it comes to the so-called personal scope, so who does it apply to? Anybody, with the exception of diplomatic representations. I can't say that [even] this is crystal clear, but let's proceed on that basis for the moment.
"So, it can look at individuals, it can look at organisations, regardless of their status, and regardless of where they perform their activities: it can be a Hungarian person doing something in Slovakia, in Brussels, it can be a Slovak coming to Hungary - it can be all sorts of activities.
"And what this office is interested in is to examine or investigate whether these activities are conducted in the interests of, or on behalf a foreign organisation, or in the interests of a foreign private citizen - I wonder who that could be? – and whether these activities, such as advocacy activities or activities aimed to influence democratic debates, or to manipulate information, or to spread this information.
What is disinformation? What is the manipulation of information?
"But these terms are not defined. What is disinformation? What is the manipulation of information?
"So, if you [or your organisation] have these elements, then the office will carry out an investigation.
"And it will also look at - regardless of whether any interests of foreign organisations or individuals are involved - it will also look at activities. And this is the second tier of its focus, activities that might influence the outcome of elections [when] foreign funding is used [for this purpose].
"So first, under the first tier, you have activities, advocacy, disinformation or influence in democratic debate that are happening in the interests of a foreign, let's call that 'entity', but it doesn't really exclude the EU either, so it could be the EU, any Nato state, or some [other] entity.
"But the second [tier] is basically if there is any activity that is meant to influence the outcome of elections as long as it's coming from foreign funds [including, potentially, EU funds].
"It does not pertain only to an election campaign, so this is beyond election campaign periods today.
"The third leg is similar; if foreign funding is used to finance activities that are meant to influence 'the will of the voters'.
"Now, the will of the voters, and the outcome of the elections of the second and third tier - it's very hard for me to differentiate, and there is no explanation of what one is versus the other.
"So again, back to the very vague provision, wilfully and intentionally left very vague.
"So, this is the general task, and then this office analyses this and publishes an annual report that becomes public.
"But it can also carry out individual investigations, and those who are under investigation, and all the other organisations or individuals that are somehow concerned with the organisation or individual who is being investigated, are compelled to provide basically any type of data or information, so: medical records, attorney-client secrets, bank secrets, tax secrets.
"So, they can come and look into [your information], they can copy what you have, they can take it away, and the scope of information that they can take away - maybe for journalists, this is interesting – is everything!
"So, let's pretend that there is some foreign funding used to uncover corruption, corrupt practices in Hungary. A journalistic team is working on that from foreign funding – obviously it's not going to be Hungarian public funding, because there is no such public funding for this purpose in Hungary.
"And then, this is perceived as something that might threaten Hungary's national sovereignty … There you go, please hand over all your interview transcripts, the contacts that you might have! And then they can go and talk to your contacts, because these are individuals who are concerned with the activities of the person under investigation. So, this is an extremely wide remit.
"What can you do against it? Nothing!
"There are no legal remedies, neither against the findings in the annual report, nor against this investigation, so much so that, when an individual is being investigated, it's not even considered a public administrative procedure.
"So, one might ask what kind of procedure this is? I'd say an arbitrary procedure, because there are no safeguards.
"I think that it's a basic tenet of democracy and of the rule of law, that once there is a decision, that you have the right to appeal [against it] at an impartial court. That at the end of the road you have an impartial, independent court to assess your claim.
"There's nothing like this here.
"There is not even an appeal within the system. You can't go to Mr Rogan or another minister, because this is an independent agency headed by a PM nominated, but head of state-appointed person for a six year term, which is renewable.
"So, basically, if they say: hand over your materials to a lawyer representing clients, hand over your case files to a doctor dealing with patients, hand over your medical records, there is not much you can do.
"You can decide not to comply, but then there could be consequences, such as being cited in front of the parliamentary national security committee.
"This could land you in front of the committee, think of McCarthy in the US in the 1950s, in the US.
"But, there is another reason why you could be harassed in front of that committee “when the case is so serious” - and this is again very undefined.
"Basically, what we see is that there are no criminal sanctions attached to this non-compliance, if you fail to provide records to cooperate, you won't be criminally charged, but, you could end up basically ostracised in the Hungarian propaganda media, and also called to appear in front of the parliamentary oversight committee, in the National Security Committee.
"Now, if there is something that the agency found on you, they can of course tell the relevant authorities, which would then carry out a proper regular procedure, public administrative or criminal procedure, leading to a fine or a criminal process,
"But, beyond the information that they take from you, they can also - and this is also another very concerning part – they can also utilise information, that is collected by the NIC.
"In fact, the National Information Centre, this super secret service that was created right after the 2022 elections, and overseen by Mr Rogan - who is also overseeing government propaganda and communications - so, this secret service is tasked with also sharing the information which it has, with this agency, with this Defence of Sovereignty Office.
"So, the NIC is a super agency because it can collect information from everybody else, all the other secret services, [but] It doesn't need to share it back, It can take it from everybody, and, if they find something that is perceived as threatening Hungary's national sovereignty, influencing voter behaviour, the will of the voters and so forth, or happening in the interests of a foreign entity, they will be compelled to pass this information on to this office.
"So, there is an information chain, which is very wide, very intrusive, and at the end phase of it, there is no legal remedy.
"So, this is why we see this as the culmination of the ongoing campaigns that are built on emitting a chilling effect, intimidation and harassment, having very vague concepts, completely lacking safeguards, and basically getting people very worried.
"Even now, when the law hasn't been passed yet."
Note: The bill was passed by the Hungarian parliament on Tuesday, December 12th.
The Defence of Sovereignty office (also referred to in English as the Protection of Sovereignty Office) will begin operating on February 1 under the leadership on Tamás Lánczi, former editor of the weekly Figyelő current affairs magazine.
The president of the Sovereignty Defence Office enjoys legal immunity, similar to a member of parliament.
The Helsinki Committee's own translation of the final, adopted version of the law:
In this YouTube video (from January, 2023) Márta Pardavi critiques Hungary's policies regarding the Russia - Ukraine conflict.