Hungary Targets Graft Watchdog, Investigative Media in Probe

(Bloomberg) -- A state body set up by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has started probes into the graft watchdog Transparency International and a news website, in the latest moves targeting groups critical of his regime.

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The investigation was started because Transparency International’s Hungarian unit received funding from abroad and its work is deemed to influence Hungarian voters, according to a letter from the Sovereignty Protection Agency that the anti-corruption group published on Tuesday.

Transparency, in a statement, called the probe “completely baseless and wrong” and said it violated Hungary’s constitution as well as European values by targeting a civic group for voicing criticism of the government. Under Orban’s 14-year rule, Hungary has plunged to last place in the European Union in the watchdog’s latest corruption perception rankings.

The state agency was the brainchild of Orban, who’s been dismantling liberal democracy since 2010, striking up close ties with Russia and China while maintaining Hungary’s membership in the EU and the NATO military alliance.

Atlatszo, a news website with one of the strongest track records of investigating corruption in Hungary, said Tuesday it was also being targeted in the Sovereignty Agency’s probe, partly because it lists Transparency International as one of its partners.

While the sovereignty law wasn’t explicitly aimed at regulating media organizations, it can be used to “severely curtail press freedom,” said Atlatszo, whose name translates as “transparent.”

The EU executive last month extended its legal probe against Hungary over the law underpinning the Sovereignty Protection Agency, after Orban’s government failed to alleviate concerns that the legislation may be used to undermine democracy. The agency’s first target was Peter Magyar, the leading Hungarian opposition figure, over claims of foreign financing that the politician has denied.

The agency’s chief, Tamas Lanczi, a pro-Orban loyalist who’s served as an executive at state media and a pro-government think-tank, in a February Bloomberg interview pledged to probe foreign influence regardless of its origin and political affiliation. At the same time, he said that targeting Russian or Chinese influence wouldn’t be a priority.

(Updates with probe affecting media organization)

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