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May 06, 2020 - Zoltán Kovács

NGOs in Transit: Dropping the objective façade

Freedom House has just released its latest edition of Nations in Transit, its annual ranking of countries in former communist eastern Europe and Eurasia. They call it a “comprehensive, comparative, and multidimensional” study that provides “in-depth” data. The title of this year’s edition: Dropping the Democratic Façade.

The findings on Hungary? Any guesses? The report says that this year’s – waitforit – “decline has been the most precipitous ever tracked in Nations in Transit.” And that’s really saying something because Hungary declines every year in Freedom House studies, except when the Socialists and Liberals were in power.

Seriously, Hungary’s scores in Freedom House’s Nations in Transit declined between 1998 and 2002 during the first Orbán Government. But after the Socialists, in coalition with the Liberals, entered government, Hungary – presto! – actually became more democratic as scores improved or remained largely unchanged until…2010. These last ten years, under Prime Minister Orbán, have been a long, bleak fall to the point where Hungary is now, according to Freedom House, no longer a democracy.

Why is that? Because Freedom House relies year after year on a circle of so-called experts and contributors that come from the same left-liberal circles. The result is the same kind of dubious scholarship that we saw last week from the Bertelsmann Foundation, which published its own annual country report downgrading Hungary by relying on regional “experts.” Nine out of ten of Bertelsmann’s Hungarian experts came from the same opposition think tank, a group closely aligned to the previous Socialist-Liberal government.

Freedom House, unfortunately, is committing the same foul.

The president of Freedom House, on April 2nd, tweeted that “we don't consider #Hungary a free country (the only partly free country in EU), as @rdanielkelemen points out. Hopefully this will be a wake up call for EU and US policians (sic) about what we are dealing with.”  He called PM Orbán’s March 15, 2018 speech the “boldest attack yet on civil society.” I mean, if he’s relying on Daniel Kelemen for his information, then why would he see it any differently?

“The 2020 adoption of an emergency law,” writes FH’s research director, “that allows the government to rule by decree indefinitely has further exposed the undemocratic character of Orbán’s regime.” Apparently, she didn’t get the memo from European Commission VP Vera Jourova that the law is compliant with EU law. The researcher’s twitter feed is full of re-tweets of Orbán critics and even a plug for an opposition politician. In one tweet, she claimed that Hungary’s emergency law is “a leap into the dark.”

The author of this year’s report on Hungary, a PhD candidate at CEU, wrote in 2018 that what has happened during this decade in Hungary is, “succinctly put, the deconstruction of democracy and the rule of law.” The author has a number of, well, remarkable observations in this year’s report. A couple of my favorites:

“Opposition parliamentarians and journalists lost much of their ability to oppose and criticize the government.” Wait, what?

“All of the 11 judges appointed to the Constitutional Court between 2010 and 2014 were named by the Fidesz government.” Yes, that’s what happens when you win elections.

“Political parties can organize legally, but they face some practical impediments in their efforts to garner popular support.” Practical impediments like finding candidates and ideas that appeal to voters?

This is the kind of “comprehensive” analysis that they say produces “in-depth” data, and we’re supposed to accept that.

We reached a turning point some time ago with these NGOs. These groups – their leadership, their financial backers, and the so-called experts who write these publications – no longer even attempt to maintain the appearance of objectivity. They no longer try to hide their bias.

It’s a pity. Freedom House, founded by Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, once prided itself on being one of the few, bi-partisan human rights organizations. That was supposed to keep it more balanced. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for today’s Freedom House, which is why nobody takes it seriously anymore.