ITALY: Debate on NGOs and foreign funding in the Parliament raises worries among Italian civil society

On 21 February, the Italian Think tank Centro Studi Politici e Strategici Machiavelli presented to the press room of the Chamber of Deputies a report called “NGOs and transparency – Comparative legislative evolution and controversy”. The research centre is known to have developed some of the policy positions brought forward by the League, one of the two government coalition parties.

The report: Hungary as a model for transparency?

The report discusses the issue of transparency for civil society’s funding and presents three case studies of countries – the United States, Israel and Hungary – that recently updated their legislation on the matter. The report refers particularly to organisations involved in search and rescue (SAR) activities but stresses that stricter regulation should address the entire third sector (in Italian ONLUS, Organizzazione non lucrativa di utilita’ sociale). It suggests increasing oversight on foreign funding and lobbying activities of organisations receiving funding from abroad.

According to the report, Hungary’s bill “on the transparency of organisations financed from abroad” (Act LXXVI of 2017), the Seventh Amendment of the Basic Law of Hungary (Bill number T/332 of 2018) and the Law on “amending certain laws relating to measures to combat illegal immigration” (Bill No. T/333 of 2018) should be taken as a model. These measures demand organisations receiving funding from abroad to register as such in a state register and to display this stigmatising label on all outputs. Individuals and organisations carrying out migration-related activities can also be sanctioned under criminal offence and organisations whose work is in any way related to migration are requested to pay a “special tax on immigration” equal to up to 25% of their income.

During the presentation, the author of the report, Carlo Sancino, told the audience: “from Hungary, we should learn that it is legitimate to hold accountable NGOs that promote illegal immigration for their work because it is not legitimate to pass on the costs of immigration to the Italian community“. The report recommends changing the law on migration 189/2002 to recognise the criminal responsibility of organisations whose members favour illegal migration.

The report also calls for further reform of the law “on the provisions on immigration and the status of foreigners” (Law 286/1998) in order to circumscribe humanitarian considerations to the Italian SAR zone. It states:

While humanitarian assistance does not in itself consist of aiding illegal immigration, it is quite different when an organisation operates in the SAR area of another country, under the direction of the authority in charge of the area in question. If, after the termination of the humanitarian assistance operation, when the situation of emergency and exception has been overcome, the organisation should choose not to hand over the persons rescued to the SAR authority in charge and to ignore the presence of closer safe ports, and instead chooses to move to Italian territorial waters, then it could be a case of aiding illegal immigration. (Translated from Italian)”

The reaction of civil society

While these considerations are still at an early stage, they should not be underestimated as they contribute to creating an environment of suspicion against critical NGOs. Also, this report comes after several statements and initiatives that have already weakened civil society in Italy. The Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini has repeatedly accused migrants’ rights defenders of acting against the national interest and has mentioned the possibility to follow the footstep of the Hungarian Prime minister Viktor Orban on the matter. A letter by a number of UN special rapporteurs lists actions that the current government has undertaken to criminalise civil society assisting migrants. Organisations such as Osservatorio Repressione have also documented an increasingly repressive approach of police against activists denouncing governmental policies. Moreover, in December the government tried to double taxes for the sector, a move that was only reversed through the massive mobilisation of the sector.

Already when UN SR on Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst paid an academic visit to Rome and met with organisations and individuals defending the rights of migrants, it was evident that delegitimation and criminalisation of Migrant rights NGOs in Italy followed modalities and trends registered elsewhere, like in Poland or Hungary. Same rhetoric, same blueprint. The fact that this is now happening in the Italian Parliament, and in a way providing some sort of legitimacy, is the signal of an increasingly worrying trend against civil society at large, that will require the development of appropriate strategies and responses

said Francesco Martone, spokesperson for In Difesa Di, per I diritti umani e chi li difende, a 40 member-strong network working on Human Rights defenders that- among others –  is supporting  Human Rights Defenders of people on the move at the national level.

Hungary’s provisions have been under the scrutiny of international bodies for breaching international standards on the certainty of the law and freedom of association. The European Commission opened an infringement procedure against Hungary over the 2017 NGO law, “which indirectly discriminate and disproportionately restrict donations from abroad to civil society organisations.” In January, the Commission also sent a reasoned opinion to Hungary on the two legislative packages implemented in the summer. In case the Hungarian authorities fail to respond to the Commission’s concerns within 60 days after the letter was sent, the Commission would open a second infringement procedure.

The Hungarian civil society has stressed that because penal dispositions are defined in such a broad and opaque manner, it is unclear whom these measures could affect. To date, the legislation has not been enforced, but it contributes to maintainingan atmosphere of intimidation and insecurity” among CSOs. It is clear that such legislation does not increase transparency as information on funding of organisations already publically available and NGOs are increasingly adopting accountability frameworks voluntarily; instead, it attempts to delegitimise critical voices.

Jean-Marc Roirant, President of the European Civic Forum and Chair of Civil Society Europe, a European network of 29 networks of civil society organisations commented:

The analysis on the situation of NGO funding and transparency contains several factually incorrect and misleading information. For example, the European Court of Auditors’ report on Transparency of EU funding implemented through NGOs does not address the transparency of NGOs budgets, but rather the way the European Commission deals with the transparency of EU funding, as also underlined by the Court in their presentation to the European parliament last January.

We are convinced that NGOs have to set an example in terms of funding transparency, as already granted in a number of countries that have developed public online databases for the online publication of annual accounts. While we believe that these obligations must be applied consistently to companies and political parties’ regulations, they should not, in any case, hinder the development of democratic civil society organisations.

Through the Civic Space Watch, the Europe Civic Forum has observed how the narrative on ‘foreign funding’ and ‘foreign interest’ is emerging in several EU Member States and is alarmed by the spillover effect that the Hungarian legislative measures to stigmatise critical NGOs are having. It is more and more evident that illiberal forces are learning from each other how to restrict fundamental rights and coordinated European response of condemn is needed.

Raffaella Bolini, member of the Italian association ARCI and Vice President of the European Civic Forum said:

“For some time now, we have chosen to focus the work of the Civic Forum on the dangerous tendencies to restrict civic space in Europe. Civic space is an integral and essential component of democracy: it is the place where dialogue and non-violent social conflict between the different interests and opinions that coexist in society takes place. The defence of associationism, of its activities, of its freedom to act and to demonstrate, is not corporative defence: it is defending the very essence of a true democracy. As usual, we will do our utmost not only to build awareness, solidarity and common action among formal and informal associations in Europe, but also to make this a priority for all democratic and progressive forces in the next European election campaign.”