Published: 29 October 2020
“In our coalition, we think that public spaces and free media can help to change the way CSOs are seen in Hungary because the main problem is lack of knowledge,” – Adam Schönberger, founding member and active participant in the Open Spaces network.
The government campaign against civil organisations in the last few years has caused major damage to the sector in Hungary. The local initiatives in cities and towns across the country have withdrawn and are focusing on rather apolitical activities. Stigmatised CSO’s, especially in pro-governmental cities are isolated from public or civic co-operations.
What is the current situation for civil society organisations in Hungary?
Our current far-right-wing government creates obstacles not only for civil society organisations but also for everyone who wants to be active in society. This type of pressure suffocates the independent cultural life, the media, opposition political parties, and other aspects of life and reminds us of the oppressive system that Hungary experienced before 1989.
Access to independent media is limited. More than 80% of the total media environment in Hungary is controlled by the government. As a result, there is a lack of knowledge in our society and both virtual and physical places for free expression. Both media and culture are so occupied that you can hardly find how to express your views independently and have a critical debate on any topic.
The positive flipside, however, is that because of the oppressive government and the continuous pressure and attacks, there is a significant amount of solidarity among the actors of civil society organisations. One can see that CSOs, independent media, and independent cultural actors show solidarity towards each other and communicate with each other which could lead to broader alliances and the spread of solidarity. Still, we should foster this development further to achieve results. Due to Covid-19, the situation won’t change for the better, at least not for a while.
How has your work changed due to the political situation but also due to the pandemic?
The work of our coalition focuses on community building in physical spaces, so all our activities have been affected. On one hand, political power is trying to limit such activities in various ways such as closing down places, putting pressure on organisations, or implementing bureaucratic surveillance. Not to mention the political alienation of such spaces – meaning that the governing party is labelling us as the enemy of the city, of the region, of the country, as foreign agents, and as the agents of George Soros. On the other hand, the pandemic has limited physical meetings that hit social entrepreneurs, for example, whose income relies on providing such open public spaces. Such business models had limited resources, to begin with, but now such income has become even more restricted.
You mentioned that the government sees you as the enemy of the state or as a foreign agent, is that a common image in the country or is it only in the political circles?
For our small-town organisation based in Debrecen, such labelling is a real problem. Our town is governed by a pro-governmental politician and community-building organisations face a lot of problems here. On some occasions, the town took over certain projects from CSOs and changed their initial purpose and expected outcome. In short, such projects failed to bring the community together. When CSOs criticise such activities, they get immediately portrayed as foreign agents which is like witch-hunting. As a result, people from the town start ostracising the employees from those CSOs which directly affects the life in the community and creates a feeling of fear and distrust. It is considered that befriending CSOs employees that are viewed as critical to the government may result in difficulties for you in finding a public position in a school or a nursery, for example. It is that easy to become an outcast and to be labelled as an oppositional thinker, you don’t even have to be a political activist but to have a different opinion.
In the non-capital regions, it is harder to establish community activities because of the politically oppressive environment. In Budapest as in other capital cities, the situation is different because most of your friends there will be opposition thinkers, for example. There are still the same financial and legal struggles there as in smaller towns but the environment is safer and the direct effect on people’s day-to-day lives is less tangible.
Is there a way to change this dynamic?
In our coalition, we think that public spaces and free media can help to change this because the main problem is lack of knowledge. The people of Debrecen, for example, are reading the newspapers of the municipality or those outlets controlled by the government, they don’t have access to free media, and they don’t know about the existence of such open community spaces that we curate. If there are enough organisations that are cooperating to create a regional circle of solidarity and can communicate with other regions, have an alternative chain of information, and can maintain a free type of media and public space on a regional level, the political tension could be eased. We are aware that not all people in the region will understand and change their thinking because of such cooperation but it is important that people be able to create a community for themselves and that the community expand. I believe that community building is a solution because then people will be able to work with each other, cooperate, and connect within organisations and others. Then, organisations’ activities will become more known and the ones who want and dare will participate. Without a real community, without the media and the physical space for meetings, it isn’t easy. We need a space to meet, speak, and invite others to debate, a space you can advertise so that people know about it. This is what our coalition, Open Spaces, is built around and aims to achieve.
Have any opportunities emerged with Covid-19, for example?
We were able to explore the tremendous opportunities for online meetings. We could also organise a country-wide online festival at the beginning of the summer and we reached around 10 000 people which is more than we would usually reach. Of course, the type of connection is different – it is much broader and shallower but still, we were able to increase our reach in number and that is also a good result despite the pandemic. My organisation, Marom, conducted two different crowd-funding campaigns that were also successful. We are glad about the results. Still, we are looking forward to festivals and spaces lively with people.
What is your proudest moment or achievement as a coalition?
We were able to survive the pandemic as an organisation and we were able to create cultural and environmental programmes running in parallel in 5 different cities in the country. This shared action was our best achievement. This has never been done before, so it was a great for us. We were able to support a civilian students’ protest – we helped them find spaces for them to create alternative study sessions when the universities were closed. We managed to act together in various places in the country and that’s very important because in Hungary everything happens in Budapest. People from other towns and cities must understand that they can bring a change too.
What would you like the future to look like?
We have a lot of challenges for the future – economic and ecological and without a shared understanding, solidarity, and actions from all sides of society, we won’t be able to solve these problems. In the face of those challenges, we have to unite. In an ideal world, people share their points of view, they are critical with each other, with their friends, and with those they don’t agree with. At the same time, they help, support, and debate with each other without siding with divisional ideologies like left-right, liberal-socialist.
Open Spaces network unites those venues in Hungary where projects of Hungarian NGOs and independent cultural entities can be carried out without censorship. The coalition of Open Spaces also provides networking opportunities that are carried out on a regional and country-wide level in the form of meetings and collaboratively organised events. Currently there are seven cities in the expanding network of eighteen places which are joined by several dozen organisations.