More than an academic question

People protest againts the bill that would undermine Central European University, a liberal graduate school of social sciences founded by U.S. financier George Soros in Budapest, Hungary, April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

Ahead of the spring European Parliamentary session, 27 IFEX members urge EU officials to condemn recent amendments to Hungary’s National Higher Education Act that threaten academic freedom and expression for the Central European University and in Hungary more broadly.

Center for Independent Journalism – Hungary , Hungarian Civil Liberties Union 25 April 2017

The undersigned members of IFEX, the global network of organisations promoting and defending freedom of expression, writes to you to express our concern about the recent adoption of amendments to Hungary’s National Act on Higher Education, which appear designed to force the Central European University (CEU) into inoperability. Given the current political context and the discriminatory nature of these amendments, we believe this new law constitutes an attack on the CEU’s right to academic freedom and independence, which is closely associated with and reinforces the fundamental right to freedom of expression and information.

The Higher Education Act cannot be viewed in isolation of the broader hostility that the Hungarian government has shown towards independent civil society groups in recent years, especially those that have financial ties to foreign donors. Representatives of the ruling Fidesz party led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban have consistently issued defamatory statements aimed at delegitimising organisations and associations that stand to challenge their vision of a Hungarian ‘illiberal state’. A favourite target has been those associated with George Soros’ Open Society Foundation.

This law appears to be an extension of efforts to undermine such entities by targeting the US accredited university based in Budapest. Its passing has occurred simultaneous to the proposal of a similarly problematic ‘Transparency of Organizations Financed from Abroad’ Act regulating NGOs such as IFEX members the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Centre for Independent Journalists – Hungary, based on the source of their funding.

For 25 years, the CEU has been an institution that fosters independent thought and critical debate in Hungarian society and beyond.

The most discriminatory aspects of the new Higher Education Act include those that would prevent the university from issuing degrees by non-EU countries, as it currently does under an OECD agreement. Another provision overturns a good-faith waiver allowing non-EU staff to teach at the university without a work permit, thus putting the university at a distinct disadvantage in the hiring process. In addition, the law would require the university to open a second campus inside the US, which according to the CEU, would be a serious burden on their financial and human resources while providing little to no educational benefit.

Finally, in perhaps the most blatantly obstructive measure, the CEU would be required to receive authorization to operate from the US federal government. Such a requirement seems to deliberately misinterpret how US Constitutional Law functions, given that authority on matters related to higher education lie at the state, not the federal level.

After a thorough legal analysis of the law and the effect that these provisions will have, the CEU has determined that if an agreement cannot be reached with the Hungarian government to overturn the amendments in question, it will become impossible to function in the country.

In this sense, it is also a deliberate attack on freedom of expression and information, which is strengthened by the existence of vibrant and independent academic institutions.

The undersigned view these developments as an unacceptable infringement on academic freedom. For 25 years, the CEU has been an institution that fosters independent thought and critical debate in Hungarian society and beyond. This flagrant effort to shut down the school by manipulating existing laws is tantamount to silencing these voices. In this sense, it is also a deliberate attack on freedom of expression and information, which is strengthened by the existence of vibrant and independent academic institutions.

In light of this analysis as well as the upcoming European Parliamentary session in which the situation in Hungary will be debated, we urge the relevant EU authorities to condemn the passage of these amendments to the National Higher Education Act and encourage the Hungarian government to come to an agreement with the CEU that would allow them to continue to operate with their academic freedom and integrity intact. Moreover, EU officials should take note of the shrinking space for academic freedom and pursue all measures to ensure it is protected in Hungary and the wider region.

Signed,

Center for Independent Journalism – Hungary
Hungarian Civil Liberties Union
ActiveWatch – Media Monitoring Agency
Adil Soz – International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech
Afghanistan Journalists Center
Albanian Media Institute
ARTICLE 19
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Bytes for All
Cambodian Center for Human Rights
Center for Independent Journalism – Romania
Digital Rights Foundation
Freedom Forum
Free Media Movement
Global Voices
Independent Journalism Center – Moldova
Index on Censorship
International Press Centre
International Press Institute
International Publishers Association
Media Institute of Southern Africa
Media Watch
Metamorphosis, Foundation for Internet and Society
Pacific Islands News Association
Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms – MADA
PEN American Center
South East European Network for Professionalization of Media

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