Hungary launches investigation into anti-corruption watchdogs

FILE PHOTO: Italian PM Meloni and Hungarian PM Orban meet in Rome

By Boldizsar Gyori

BUDAPEST (Reuters) -Hungary's Sovereignty Protection Office launched an investigation on Tuesday into the Hungarian branch of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) and an online investigative outlet that focuses on corruption.

Hungary's parliament passed a law late last year that set up an authority, the Sovereignty Protection Office, to explore and monitor risks of political interference.

The law, which has been criticised by the European Union, the United States and several international organisations, bans foreign financing for parties or groups running for election and carries punishments of up to three years in prison.

TI published the news of the investigation in a statement on its website, citing a letter from the country's Sovereignty Protection Office, which later confirmed that it has sent the letter and started an inquiry.

In its letter quoted by TI, the Sovereignty Protection Office said its investigation was based on an allegation that the organisation was engaged in activities funded by "subsidies from abroad" and that "influence decisions by the electorate".

TI Hungary said that the sovereignty protection law "serves the intention of the government to intimidate citizens and civil organisations that are critical of the government".

As "an organisation fighting corruption, the success of our investigative, analytical and legal work, and perhaps even our mere existence threatens the regime of Prime Minister Viktor Orban," it said.

A non-profit investigative journalism centre, Atlatszo.hu also said on Tuesday that the Sovereignty Protection Office notified it of the start of an investigation into its finances and its ties to TI.

Atlatszo.hu specialises in uncovering corruption. Along with several other news outlets, it criticised the Sovereignty Protection law in December 2023, saying it "seriously curtailed press freedom".

The law was criticised by the U.S. State Department, as well as by a panel of constitutional law experts from the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog, which said it can have "a chilling effect" on free and democratic debate in the country.

The European Commission launched an infringement procedure over the law in February this year, citing its potential to undermine the union's democratic values and fundamental rights.

Orban, in power since 2010 and with a two-thirds majority in parliament that allows his Fidesz party to change any legislation, has denied accusations he was undermining democracy in Hungary after the law passed.

(Reporting by Boldizsar GyoriEditing by Alexandra Hudson and Barbara Lewis)