A law proposed by Poland’s justice and environment ministers would oblige non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to declare sources of foreign funding, which would be published in a public register.

However, following Friday’s announcement, a deputy prime minister has said that the proposed NGO law is not official government policy. A similar measure introduced in Hungary was recently ruled to be a violation of EU law by the European Court of Justice.

The new bill was unveiled on Friday at a press conference by Zbigniew Ziobro, the justice minister, and Michał Woś, the environment minister. Both are from United Poland (Solidarna Polska), which is a junior coalition partner to the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Under the proposed regulations, all NGOs will have to declare the foreign funding they receive. Those that get at least 10% of their funding from abroad will have to mention that fact on their website and will be included on a publicly available register maintained by the justice ministry.

Those that receive more than 30% of their funding from abroad will have further obligations. These “include, inter alia, the need to indicate where the funding for specific activities comes from”, said Woś, quoted by Onet.

NGOs that fail to comply with the rules would be fined between 3,000 and 50,000 zloty (€680 to €11,340), said Woś, quoted by Dziennik.pl. Repeated violations could eventually result in the organisation losing its NGO status, he added.

“Exploitation by lobby groups and intelligence agencies”

Ziobro and Woś said that the main aim of the proposed law was to improve transparency. They claimed that similar rules are in place in countries such as the United States and Israel.

However, they also made clear that another motivation behind the bill was to clamp down on NGOs that act against the public interest on behalf of their donors, and even foreign states.

Speaking to state broadcaster Polskie Radio, Woś claimed that some environmental organisations, such as Greenpeace, are working not on behalf of the environment but some “bigger interests”.

“It is an open secret that a large section of environmental organisations actually work to carry out the instructions of big business, big capital or the powerful of this world,” he claimed, suggesting that they “take advantage” of Poles’ concern for the environment. 

“The question is whether this is about exploitation by lobby groups, [and] sometimes also intelligence agencies,” said Woś. As evidence, he claimed that environment NGOs show “double standards” by “behaving differently towards Poland than other countries, such as Germany”.

During the press conference, Ziobro also claimed that “large economic organisations are able to finance the operation of an [NGO] and influence the implementation of their own interests through them”, reports Money.pl.

“Putin’s Russia comes to mind”

The proposed regulations have been met with concern from NGOs themselves, who say that they are designed to stigmatise and pressurise inconvenient NGOs rather than improve transparency.

“The first association that comes to mind is the [policies] already implemented in Putin’s Russia and in Orban’s Hungary,” Piotr Kładoczny, head of the legal department at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, told Onet.

“It is absolutely obvious what [the Russian and Hungarian regulations] were supposed to do,” he added. “It was about the stigmatisation of organisations as ‘foreign agents of influence’. I am seriously afraid that these may be the real goals of Minister Woś, and not the pursuit of full openness in public life that he declares.”

Ewa Kulik-Bielińska, the director of the Stefan Batory Foundation, another NGO that receives foreign funding, condemned the proposal as a “completely sick idea”. NGOs that receive funding from abroad meeting the highest standards and should be a “source of pride for Poland”, not of “stigmatisation”, she said.

“Every government in a developed democracy needs and values the role of NGOs that criticise some actions of the authorities and highlight neglect and abuse,” she continued. “Without those who are independent and watch over the authorities, it is impossible to know if something is wrong.”

Kulik-Bielińska added that it appears the “ministers forgot that Poland is still a member of the EU”. Under European law “donors from other EU countries should be treated equally” and cannot be discriminated against with the type of rules being proposed, she noted.

Kaczyński aims to “repolonise” foreign-owned media but admits “international reaction” a problem

In June this year, the European Court of Justice ruled that Hungary had violated European law by requiring NGOs that receive more than $27,000 funding from abroad per year to register as “foreign-funded organisations” and to publish the names of donors.

Viktor Orban’s government argued that the measure was necessary to tackle money laundering and increase transparency, but the ECJ found that it unlawfully restricted the free movement of capital within the EU.

Ziobro, however, says that NGOs have nothing to worry about if they are doing nothing wrong. “The bill does not limit the activities of any organisation, does prohibit any organisation from functioning, and does not eliminate any organisation” he argued, quoted by Polskie Radio.

“The more openness, the better for democracy,” continued Ziobro. “Is there something wrong with being open? Is there something wrong with transparency?”

“Not politically agreed by the government”

Shortly after Ziobro and Woś’s announced of the proposed law, a statement was issued by Piotr Gliński, the culture minister and a deputy prime minister, denying that it was government policy.

“The bill in question is only a proposal of United Poland, [it is] not politically agreed within the United Right,” wrote Gliński, referring in the latter case to the name for the ruling coalition that is made up of PiS, United Poland and another junior partner, Agreement (Porozumienie).

Gliński said that the committee he chairs is responsible for formulating the government’s position on matters relating to NGOs, and that it is itself preparing a proposal for a new financial reporting system that will “take account of transparency and funding sources”.

The situation marks the second time in recent weeks that Ziobro – who leads a more hard-line faction of the ruling camp – has initiated a policy that other ministers quickly denied was a government position.

In late July, Ziobro announced that he would begin withdrawing Poland from an international convention against domestic violence.

But a government spokesman declared that this was not official policy, and the prime minister instead asked the Constitutional Tribunal to determine whether the convention is compatible with Poland’s constitution.

Poland to begin withdrawal from international convention on violence against women

The United Right government has previously sought to bring NGO funding under more centralised control. In 2017, it created a new body, the National Freedom Institute, to oversee public funding for civil society.

“The Polish NGO sector is one of the weakest in Europe,” said Adam Lipiński, the civil society minister at the time. “We need to know more about it. Perhaps in these murky waters there are sharks that are now afraid they will be better seen? It’s all public funds and the government should know what’s happening to this money.”

Opposition politicians, however, accused PiS of making the decision in order to exert greater control over NGOs. Poland’s commissioner for human rights, Adam Bodnar, also warned that the measures “contradict clearly defined [international] norms” and could leave NGOs open to “political pressure”.

The government has also recently returned to its long-held goal of “repolonising” private media by introducing measures to reduce foreign ownership. During the recent presidential election campaign, incumbent Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, claimed that German-owned media were “interfering” in the election on behalf of the opposition.

Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of PiS and Poland’s de facto leader, announced last month that he aims to proceed with “repolonisation” during the current parliamentary term, but admitted that the “international reaction” would make this difficult.

Most foreign-owned media in Poland belong in part or in whole to German concerns, and efforts to challenge this could violate EU law. Another of PiS’s targets, private broadcaster TVN, is American-owned and has been fiercely defended by the US ambassador.

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Main image credit: P.Tracz/KPRM/Flickr (under public domain)

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