The freedom to peacefully assemble remains a constitutional right in Hungary. The protection from being harassed when engaged in such activity: not so much, at least not in the current government’s practice.
The National Tax and Customs Administration of Hungary has started an investigation into the finances of two lead organizers of Hungary’s biggest opposition group.“Milla,” a.k.a. the One Million for the Freedom of Press in Hungary Facebook group organized some of the most successful opposition rallies against Viktor Orbán’s government. Their calls to action mobilize tens of thousands of Hungarian citizens, and their protests on Hungarian national holidays – on March 15. and Oct. 23 – are important reminders of wide-spread discontent with the government’s policies.
Since the Facebook group does not have legal status, its bank account is held in the name of two lead organizers who are both being audited by the Hungarian tax agency. Ironically, the accounting prepared by the Facebook group shows that they are still 240,000 Hungarian forint short of raising funds to cover the expenses of the demonstrations they had held in 2011.
Beyond proving that, though he did pay taxes, one of the protest organizers failed to file tax returns and is likely to be fined in the process, the questions of the audit interview explored organizational questions. In particular, officers of the Hungarian tax authority wanted to know how much the group’s campaign videos cost, who prepared them, and whether payments had been made to those involved in the protest’s organization. They also asked about persons responsible for maintaining the group’s YouTube channel, which features footage of opposition protests as well as self-recorded messages of dissent from individual supporters of the group.
Officially the National Tax and Customs Administration’s investigation focuses on tax returns filed between 2006 and 2010. Milla’s protests were organized in 2011, however, and any donations they received arrived to their bank accounts during the 2011 tax year. Therefore the Hungarian tax authority is in no position to investigate the Facebook group’s finances at this time, since the filing deadline for the 2011 tax year is in May 2012.
Nevertheless, the government officers showed keen interest in seeing receipts and bills for services rendered to the opposition group during 2011. They offered “assistance” to the two individuals in the preparation of their tax forms, “in order to avoid trouble,” though for this they would have to see documentation from the Facebook group’s representatives. The group has many business supporters who provided their services at a discount, the tax authority was also interested in their names.
The tax audit is not the first time the Hungarian government has come up with unorthodox methods of discrediting the Facebook group and/or of preventing its political activities.
In media circles close to the government, the group is often described as an association of “druggies,” given some of the organizers’ involvement during past years in movements advocating for the legalization of soft drugs. Last October, a PR-specialist employed by the Ministry of Public Administration of Justice – who remains active in the Hungarian government’s employment to this day – launched a gender-based personal attack against a female vocalist featured in the group’s campaign video.
The next protest organized by One Million for the Freedom of Press in Hungary is scheduled for March 15, though obtaining a protest permit was by no means a straightforward process. In January 2012, the Hungarian government announced its plans to reserve a long list of public areas in the city of Budapest for government-sponsored events in honor of the national holiday. The requests were quickly approved by the municipal council of Budapest, also under the rule of the governing party, thereby preventing dissenting civil organizations from holding their own gatherings in these areas.
Upon a closer study of the list of locations, it turned out that the government made claims to practically every single location of the inner city capable of holding a mass demonstration. Hungarian Spectrum provides an English-language version of the humorous description of the situation originally published on the Hungarian-language blog Örülünk, Vincent?, along with the maps that illustrate the exclusionary intention behind the Hungarian government’s zeal to celebrate the Hungarian national holiday.
The Hungarian ministry led by Tibor Navracsics did not only obtain exclusive rights for the use of these public spaces for the entire week of the March 15 national holiday (for the entire period between March 12 and March 18, that is). The Hungarian Ministry of Public Administration of Justice’s also made its space reservations binding for national holidays to be held three years into the future, until 2014.
There were permitting issues for previous protest as well: the permitting story of the Facebook group’s last protest held on Oct. 23 of 2011 mimics what happened this year. Last October, the Hungarian government made similar “space reservations,” but in the end could not hold a demonstration given Prime Minister Orbán’s urgent participation in an EU meeting.
News that the Facebook group was nevertheless able to secure a protest permit for a thoroughfare known as “Free Press Road”arrived on February 17. At that time it appeared that the Hungarian government would not place further obstacles in the way of its opposition’s peaceful assembly. The Hungarian government’s intentions to respect democratic rights has been questioned yet again, however, especially since according to the protest organizers audited last week, the officers of the tax authority made representations that their probe was initiated on orders from higher levels of the government, and that the timing of the audit was intentional.