(European Civic Forum on CIVICUS Monitor) As the country prepares for elections on 6th October 2018, Latvian civil society is facing both positive and negative attitudes from campaigning parties.
MPs vilify NGO working on sexual and reproductive health rights
On 13th September 2018, 11 Members of Parliament wrote to Latvian Prime Minister Māris Kučinskis to investigate funding to civil society, in particular, NGOs working on advocacy. The letter refers to an episode involving Papardes Zieds, an NGO working on sexual and reproductive health and rights. MPs asked the Prime Minister to look into whether the funding and the actions of the NGOs had undermined the Latvian constitution. Papardes Zieds receives funding from both the Latvian government and Open Society Foundation. The CSO gained prominence after criticising the “morality amendments” to the Education Law. In particular, they cited a chilling effect on teachers. The CSO noted that after the amendments, teachers are less willing to talk about reproductive health issues.
The MPs’ letter stressed that “this foreign-financed NGO project, which is openly aimed at repealing a law of the Republic of Latvia, endangers the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia and the independence of the country”. Following the publication of the letter, an MP from the Unity party (see video below) raised concerns about the “Russian” style rhetoric used by the MPs to attack civil society organisations. Following a parliamentary debate on the issue on 27th September 2018, the MPs request to the Prime Minister was defeated by a majority of MPs.
In recent years, a number of states in the region, including Russia and Hungary, have legislated to impede foreign funding to CSOs which they perceive to be a threat to their domestic affairs. Similarly, the letter from the Latvian MPs spoke of a threat to Latvia’s national security and raised concerns among civil society representatives due to the overall environment. Such rhetoric is not isolated to the election campaign period, as the CIVICUS Monitor has already reported several episodes where civil society has been vilified.
Pledge to improve funding for CSOs
A coalition of political parties has pledged to change Latvia’s tax laws so that taxpayers can choose to allocate 1% of their personal income tax to civil society. Economics Minister Arvils Aseradens said the move was motivated by the fact that funding to CSOs had dropped dramatically.
As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, despite opposition from the non-profit sector, in 2017 the government abolished tax breaks for companies donating to NGOs. Preliminary findings from research carried out by Civic Alliance Latvia (CAL) shows that the tax reform had a negative impact on the amount of donations to civil society in the first six months of implementation, with a drop of 42% compared to the same six months of the previous year.
Civil society has welcomed a debate on how to financially support the sector and believes that the 1% measure proposed by the coalition should be coupled with an increased budget for civil society.
Reform of the Memorandum council
The high-level working group tackling the reform of the Memorandum Council, the consultative body connecting NGOs and the Cabinet of Ministers, reached an agreement on the main challenges facing civil society and work of the Council. The group decided to set up a secretariat comprised of both civil society and government representatives which will deal with the coordination of dialogue, research and assessment of conditions for civil society, as well as the development of recommendations. The working group also recognised two main issues that hamper Latvia’s civil society: financial sustainability and dialogue between civil society and the government. Despite this positive progress, Latvian NGOs will continue to monitor civic space and identify broader challenges of the civil society sector.
The CIVICUS Monitor had previously reported that the working group was established to respond to emerging challenges for civil society in Latvia. The reform will be presented to the NGO signatories of the Memorandum Council over the next weeks to allow an inclusive process. Following the consultation, the reform will need to be approved by the new Council.
At the end of August 2018, the annual Conference on the Implementation of the Memorandum of Cooperation of Non-Governmental Organizations and the Cabinet of Ministers took place. While the reform of the Council is progressing positively, civil society representatives were disappointed by a lack of meaningful engagement by the Latvian Prime Minister. Māris Kučinskis left promptly after making a five minute speech at the conference and did not participate in any of the discussions.
On 10th September 2018, the Latvian chapter of the free expression organisation PEN, wrote a letter raising concern over complaints filed by law enforcement authorities regarding the investigative work of journalists during the ongoing electoral campaign. Some of the complaints relate to journalists from Re:Baltica, the Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism. According to the PEN letter:
“Representatives of several political groups have turned to security authorities with complaints against journalists who perform their work during the pre-election period, drawing public attention to possible violations by politicians or unethical conduct. In our opinion, the constant filing of complaints and initiation of criminal proceedings is used as a systematic tactic with the aim of interfering with the work of journalists…We believe that such persecution is a threat to freedom of expression and is unacceptable in a democratic society.” (translated from Latvian)