NAHC Response to recent articles published in the Globe and Mail regarding the CEU and Hungary
Transparency is one of the pillars of modern democracy. We demand, as citizens, a clear and accessible government system that allow us to hold our elected officials to account. Should not this same requirement be extended to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and entities (like foreign-owned or private universities) that similarly receive and manage large financial subsidies, funding, and foreign donations? The importance of a civil society in promoting democracy is not in question, but when legislative efforts are made to provide the same legal platform for all NGOs to operate on, it is made to foster greater transparency and fairness, and it should not be immediately attacked as anti-democratic, authoritarian, or – more reprehensibly – anti-Semitic (as has been the case in Hungary).
In March 2017, the Fidesz-led Hungarian government submitted a bill to parliament to amend the National Higher Education Act. The proposed amendment indicated that universities in Hungary that are foreign-based and funded may continue to operate if an intergovernmental agreement is in place between Hungary and the home and funding country. The amendment also stipulates that a foreign university in Hungary may continue to operate if it similarly holds operations in its source nation. This was, regrettably, regarded as a singular attack against the Central European University (CEU), a New York-based university operating in Budapest, although the amendment was based on a report prepared by Hungary’s national educational authority which investigated 28 universities in total potentially operating in violation of Hungarian law. While the law places new requirements on foreign-based and funded universities such as restriction on issuing of solely Hungarian degrees and not diplomas recognized in other states, the compliance with the law ensures the continuance of services in Hungary without any threat of closure.
Furthermore, the proposed amendment aims to ensuring that all universities in Hungary operate under the same conditions and do not have an unfair advantage over other educational institutions. The legislation in question makes no reference to the forceful closing of universities, only a stronger legal framework for compliance with Hungary’s laws. Critics of the Hungarian government’s amendment cite potential unconstitutional attempts by the government to curtail academic freedom in Hungary, although no evidence of any suppression of academic freedom in Hungary have been presented. In fact, a legal infringement procedure brought against Hungary by the European Union on this issue makes no reference to any issues pertaining to academic freedom in Hungary and merely speaks to a violation of the free flow of services.
Because of misinformation in the press and among critics of the amendment, a great deal of confusion and misguided discussion has diverted attention from the role of the amendment in holding NGOs to the same standards of transparency required by the Hungarian government. Regrettably, misreported statements made it all the way to the diplomatic arena, prompting the Hungarian Foreign Ministry to summon Canada’s Ambassador in Budapest, Isabelle Poupart, to clarify her comments about academic freedom in Hungary.
Civil discussion and accurate statements need to permeate the ongoing discussion between the Hungarian government, universities, and the governments in question. It is important to understand that NGOs who are foreign-based and yet they do not have a campus in their home country derive their funding from foreign sources play a dual role in a civil society. They can act as an agent of political pressure, and are often not neutral in domestic political and policy issues. This potential conflict of interest should prompt a fair, balanced, and open discussion of transparency for NGOs that comply with national laws and build a better society, rather than attacking the host country with unsubstantiated allegations as is the case with Hungary. Foreign funding should not dictate the goals or activities of organizations operating in Hungary or other states, and a full and candid debate should result in a stronger civil society that remains accountable to those they claim to serve.
Hungary has a rich history of academic freedom and the protection of independent education. The Hungarian governments attempt to create a more balanced educational framework should be seen from the standpoint of promoting transparency and democratic traditions. Protest is a health part of any democracy, but labels should be based on facts and ongoing defamatory remarks against individuals and national governments only serve to weaken the role and the credibility of civil society.
We demand that fair and balanced articles are published in the media about the real meaning of the above-mentioned bill amendment in Hungary, and that defamatory remarks and baseless accusations against Hungary and her political figures and democratic structure stop, immediately.
With best regards,
National Alliance of Hungarians in Canada
100 Gloucester ST, Suite 352
Ottawa, ON K2P 0A4