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April 18, 2018

New Book Details Activist Responses to Modern Authoritarianism in Hungary and Beyond

Colombian human rights NGO Dejusticia released a superb book this week, presenting ideas for how activists can respond to the rise of authoritarian regimes.

Rising to the Populist Challenge: A New Playbook for Human Rights Actors is packed with real-world examples and tips on how to organize and respond to the intensifying worldwide suffocation of civil society. It offers a series of excellent case studies—from Kenya, Venezuela, Egypt, South Africa, and Hungary, among others—on creative responses to attacks on activism.

NGOs in Hungary are bracing for a new legislative assault on their work following this month’s election victory of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party. In the book, Stefánia Kapronczay and Anna Kertész from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union [HCLU] explain how their NGO is adjusting to the new, hostile environment. When government-sponsored attacks on Hungarian civil society smeared their work:

“the HCLU took advantage of the increased media attention… to create a communications strategy designed to strengthen the organization’s credibility by reaching an audience beyond its usual supporters…. Instead of responding to the government attacks and allowing itself to be cornered into a defensive stance, the HCLU deliberately chose to tell its own story about its values, its staff, and its clients using narratives that resonated with people’s feelings.”

The key, they say, “was to reach beyond the current circle of donors and supporters into segments of the majority population who traditionally have seen human rights as protecting only minorities and who have tended to support the government and xenophobic movements.”

The initiative, called “HCLU is needed” (Kell a TASZ), started as a hashtag campaign but evolved into a whole communications strategy to change the discussion about human rights, putting a human face on their clients through personal stories. It also shifted attention from polarized politics to the organization itself and the people behind it, posting features on staff members, showing who they are as individuals, and their reasons for working at the HCLU.

Crucially, the HCLU is steering away from the often-alienating technical language of human rights, explaining its values in plain language and appealing to values and emotions that resonate with the majority of the population.

While this rethinking of how to present NGO work is vital, it probably won’t be enough to prevent the imminent passage of anti-human rights laws. The new government has called the measures Stop Soros legislation, using a classic authoritarian tactic of blaming foreign influences.

Orban’s Fidesz Party has for years scapegoated philanthropist George Soros for undermining “traditional values.” The new legislation will allow the government to ban NGOs that support immigration and pose “a national security risk.” Local NGOs warn the new laws pose an existential threat to much of civil society.

Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, was one of hundreds of people accused by pro-government magazine Figyelo earlier this month of taking part in a Soros-funded plot to take down the government. She says the new legislation “might happen very fast, as soon as the parliament meets for its first sitting in early May. The government has announced this is what will happen.”

What’s happening in Hungary is all too familiar. Between 1993 and 2012, 45 countries passed laws restricting foreign funding to local human rights groups. Since then, another 98 have passed laws restricting civil society space, 36 per cent of which have to do with international funding.

Rising to the Populist Challenge shows how a new wave of leaders has learned to exploit weaknesses in the human rights movement, including the over-reliance on international funding, gaps in understanding between international NGO professionals and local human rights activists, and the dominance of law-centered strategies.

More importantly, it offers practical suggestions for how human rights activists can respond. This is a valuable contribution to the human rights movement, and a generation from now will likely be seen as a crucial study that helped reshape how we work.