Political interference row between Norway and Hungary escalates
By Eszter Zalan
Norway summoned the Hungarian ambassador in Oslo to the foreign ministry on Wednesday (4 June) after the Hungarian authorities two days earlier raided the offices of NGOs involved in administrating aid from the Nordic country.
The move is the latest in a weeks-long spat over accusations by Budapest that Norwegian money has made its way to organisations with links to political parties.
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Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government says some funds ended up with a green political party, Politics Can Be Different (LMP), that just surpassed the 5 percent threshold in April's general election, and also managed to send one representative to the European Parliament.
Janos Lazar, Orban's chief-of-staff in a letter to Norway's EU affairs minister, Vidar Helgesen, in April accused Oslo of meddling in internal politics and supporting the green party through the NGOs that coordinate the grants.
The Hungarian government also made a list of recipients it considered problematic for having “leftist political ties”.
Among them were Transparency International, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and an investigative journalism portal, atlatszo.hu.
The Norwegian embassy in Budapest rejected the allegations in a statement last week. The LMP party also rejected the charges.
Since coming to power in 2010, Orban's government has often been accused of trying to curb press freedom, weaken independent institutions, and undermine the rule of law.
Some in the NGO community believe the attack on the Norway Grants programme means now they are the next target, something the government denies.
However on Monday, agents from the Government Control Office (KEHI) raided the offices of three NGOs that help Norway disburse its aids.
EU affairs minister Helgesen told Reuters on Monday (June 2) that his country would continue funding the grants and carry out its own audit, due in the autumn. He added that Budapest had agreed to the terms of the funding scheme it is now criticising.
"There is a shared European concern about the weakening of democratic institutions and processes (in Hungary), such as the constitutional court, the legal system, the electoral commission and of course the space for the media and others to enjoy the freedom of expression. There are infringements here that are cause for concern,” said Helgesen, noting that it would not be in Oslo’s interest to support any individual party.
In the escalating bilateral dispute, Norway suspended the grants given by the government in early May because Hungary has unilaterally changed the disbursement system.
However, Norway has maintained funding the civil society through its partner NGOs despite calls from Lazar to suspend them. The Norwegian money stems from a 1994 agreement under which it, Iceland and Liechtenstein donate aid to EU member states to help reduce economic disparities in return for access to the EU's single market.
Norway has allocated €153.3 million to Hungary for the 2009-2014 period.
Media freedom under renewed threat
Meanwhile, state Secretary Lazar is also caught up in the sacking of the editor-in-chief of one of the most popular news websites in Hungary, Origo.
Gergo Saling was abruptly removed from his post on Tuesday (3 June), with internal restructuring due to “changing media consumption habits” given as the reason.
His sacking came after the site recently revealed – after having to sue the Prime Minister’s office for the relevant information – that Lazar spent an unusually high amount of public money on foreign trips.
Lazar, avoiding further questions on the details of his trips, said he would pay back the roughly €6,600 in question.
Origo journalists and others suspect political pressure behind the sacking and issued a statement saying they did not agree with Saling's removal.
Origo's owner – Origo Zrt., a subsidiary of German firm Deutsche Telekom AG – denied there was any political motivation for the sacking.
About a thousand journalists and sympathisers protested in Budapest against the removal of the editor on Tuesday afternoon.