While Estonian civil society is generally recognised as a partner in policy development and service delivery, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) engaging with the government and working on human rights issues have recently experienced increasing stigmatisation.
According researchers working on the CIVICUS Monitor, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, an opposition party known for its nationalist and conservative views, has begun a smear campaign against activists and NGOs, especially those who receive government funding. This negative narrative is also spreading through conservative news outlets. For example, in September 2017 the news agency Objectiiv published a piece on the alleged contradictions in the government funding liberal and left-leaning NGOs that presumably do not represent the views of the majority of the population. The newspaper Postimees also asserted that:
“Estonia is a country where freedom and citizens’ initiative are considered important, and the state supports civil society organisations. The paradox is that the public money supports organisations [….] whose opinions contrast with those of the majority of the population”.
The articles in these two publications note the the high dependency of civil society organisations on public funds, which can make it difficult for NGOs to maintain their independence, represent citizens’ interest and serve as a watchdog over the government. However, there are concerns that the opinions expressed in these above-mentioned articles and by various political voices could erode citizens’ trust in civil society.
On this point, Maris Jõgeva from the NGO Hea Kodanik said:
“while there still is support for community-based social work, mistrust around NGOs that work on issues that are politically sensitive is increasingly emerging”.
Reports indicate that, thus far, NGOs in general have not been impacted by significant cuts in public funds or other opportunities for growth within the sector. Several organisations, however, have reported instances of harmful rhetoric aimed against them, which has reportedly hindered their ability to explain their positions on certain issues to the public and policymakers.