The news caught my eye in light of the debate over Hungary’s proposed NGO law. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing the US decision here. I find it interesting, though, because it provides further proof to the point that the government of Hungary has been making all along. Let me explain.
Foreign influence in domestic politics is a growing concern in many democracies around the world. The methods used by these foreign groups vary, from using so-called civic organizations to manipulating the media, but many western countries have begun to respond to efforts by foreign interests to influence public discourse and politics in their countries.
Hungary has chosen to promote transparency. In April, a proposal was submitted by members of the Hungarian Parliament calling for greater transparency of foreign funding to NGOs. The proposal affects only those NGOs receiving foreign funding above a certain amount to reveal that in their reporting and publications (click here for more details).
“Hungarian citizens must be given the right to know about all public actors, who they are and who pays them,” said Prime Minister Orbán. “So we want transparency.” That’s a reasonable objective and, compared to what some other countries do, a fairly limited response.
Not long after word of Hungary’s proposed legislation first surfaced, even before a draft was submitted, several US and European think tanks and NGOs hastily mounted a protest campaign under the sensational banner, “No to NGO crackdown in Hungary.”
In my response, I called the critics’ attention to the fact that the US has a much stricter federal law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. It says that people and organizations that are acting "at the order, request, or under the direction or control" of a foreign government or organizations or persons outside the country must report their relationship with the foreign power.
No, no, no, they told me. I clearly misunderstood. According to the response I received from one of the campaign’s organizers, “FARA applies quite narrowly to organizations involved in ‘political or quasi-political’ activities” and that the “text of the US law explicitly exempts news organizations and publications.”
In fact, I said, foreign-funded organizations engaged in “political or quasi-political” activities are exactly what we’re talking about. Hungary, like many other countries, wants the people to know if their politics are being meddled with from abroad.
News organizations and publications were never the target of the Hungarian legislation so I wondered why they brought it up in the first place. Today, I’m glad they did because it provides further proof to my point.
Just recently, The Hill reported that a Russian media service, RT, was just forced to register under FARA. Journalists of RT and another outlet, Sputnik, were called in for questioning by the FBI. And the article had another interesting line: “Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working to update the law and make it much stricter, with several bills in the works.”
Is the US federal government carrying out a crackdown on foreign media? Of course not. They’re doing what many western democracies are doing. When confronted with a concern of interference by a foreign-funded entity, it appears they’re going to require RT to meet the stricter regulations of FARA.
Hungary’s move to require foreign-funded NGOs to make transparent their source of income is a small requirement in the big picture. Perhaps even my pen pals at the “No to NGO crackdown” campaign could admit that fact and refrain from using blatantly double standards in the future.