POLAND: The Minister of environment is planning a law on foreign funding for NGOs

UPDATE – 9 September 2020: Polish ministers propose law making NGOs declare foreign funding and creating public register

Extract from an article written by Juliette Bretan, published on Notes from Poland on 9 August 2020 – Article accessible here

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.

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(Article originally written in Polish by Magdalena Chrzczonowicz on Oko.Press, 10.05.2020)

The Ministry of the Environment has undertaken work on revealing the financing of NGOs, not only environmental ones“, announced the Minister Michał Woś on TV Trwam. Organisations should inform Poles that they are financed from abroad. Such a law already exists in Russia and Hungary. 

In an interview with TV Trwam on 9 May, the Minister of the Environment revealed his idea for non-governmental organisations. He started with environmentalists: “It’s people who are manipulators who get caught up in emotional gameplay. There’s also lobbyists, big business. 

He then presented his idea for “disciplining lobbyists”: 

I have called a group in the Ministry working to disclose the financing of NGOs, not only environmental ones, because it will serve all Poland to ensure that all organisations have financial transparency. They will be able to show whether they are financed from foreign funds or not. Those that are, should inform Poles about this” – said Michał Woś. 

And he explained: “Poles have the right to know whether those who strongly protest on some investment, near the Vistula Spit, whether these organisations are acting in the interest of Poles, at the request of Poles, from Poles’ contributions, or there are foreign organisations that cause some even to be paid to protest in this particular place.

The crossroads of the Vistula Spit is in progress, some of the organizations express deep dissatisfaction because of that. Some say that the expert opinions, which show that this pit should not take place, were originally written – I do not know, this is to be checked – in Cyrillic.

Already in March 2020, Minister Woś announced that he is working on a law on ” transparency” of environmental organisations. We asked the ministry what solutions Woś has in mind and whether the composition of the working team is already known. We did not receive an answer. However, in an interview for TV Trwam, the minister spoke about all NGOs. This is a dangerous idea from Putin’s Russia.

Ewa Kulik-Bielińska, Director of the Batory Foundation: Maybe the Minister doesn’t know? 

Maybe Minister Woś does not know, but such regulations are not needed, because they have existed for several years in the Corporate Income Tax Act” – said OKO.press Ewa Kulik-Bielińska, director of the Batory Foundation.

The Act imposes an obligation on NGOs endowed by legal persons with donations exceeding PLN 15,000 or their total sum received from one donor exceeds PLN 35,000, to inform the tax office about the donor with his name and address. The same law also imposes an obligation on the endowed organisation to make public information about these donations.

Such information can be easily found on the websites of ecological, human rights, educational and any other organizations.

The idea of min. Wosia duplicates existing regulations“, added Kulik-Bielińska. 

Russia Putin, Hungary Orban, Israel Netanyahu

Vladimir Putin first came up with the idea of “revealing financing from abroad” and implemented it in 2012. In Russia, associations that receive funding directly or through state agencies from foreign governments, international organisations, foreign citizens or stateless persons are considered “non-profit organisations acting as foreign agents“.

According to Amnesty International, during the 4 years of the law’s validity, 148 organizations, including the famous Memorial, were included in the list of “foreign agents” in Russia, 27 of which were closed. Among others, the Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies in Saratov and the Moscow Association of Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms were closed down.

In 2017 a similar law was passed by the Orbán government in Hungary. It was preceded by a campaign for NGOs and national consultations “Stop Brussels”. According to the law, civic organisations which receive financial support from foreign sources in the amount of more than HUF 7.2 million (approximately PLN 100,000) per year are obliged to register as “financed from abroad” and thus are subject to a stricter regime of financial control and possible sanctions. Religious, sports and political foundations and associations are excluded from the Act.

The law hinders the operation of organisations monitoring the authorities, defending human rights, etc. It was the lex NGO that caused the decline of Hungary in the rankings of freedom and democracy, including Freedom House.

But the law, which is closest to the one proposed by Michał Woś, exists in Israel. Since 2016, human rights groups and organizations that receive more than half of their funding from outside the country, including from the European Union, must inform about it in reports and official communications. What does this mean? Every e-mail, newsletter, postal correspondence, grant application, but also in contact with the press must be accompanied by a note stating that ‘this organization is financially supported by foreign funds’.

Benjamin Netanyahu uses a law perversely called “transparency bill” to mark organisations that monitor the observance of human rights in the Palestinian Authority, and thus – in the Prime Minister’s understanding – are enemies of the interests of the state of Israel. The bill has been criticized by international bodies, including the European Commission, which stated that it is contrary to the principles of freedom of speech, pluralism and democracy.

Russian agents on the Vistula Spit

The minister’s statement is also shocking for another reason. He suggests that behind the ecologists who are fighting against the crossroads of the Vistula Spit is Russia (“Cyrillic expertise”). Just in case, he adds, “I don’t know, you have to check“, but the statement is unequivocal – ecologists are Russian agents (or unaware of their helpers).

The Minister is probably concerned with a complaint submitted to the European Commission by environmental organisations such as Greenpeace Poland. Or perhaps the position prepared in 2016 by the Polish Ecological Club, which was supported by several dozen environmental organisations.

The study indicates that as a result of the implementation of the investment, there will be various negative environmental effects, among others:

  • destruction of protected Natura 2000 habitats on beaches and dunes;
  • deterioration of the water quality of the Vistula Lagoon;
  • deterioration of the integrity of the Vistula Spit as a Natura 2000 area by digging a canal;
  • negative impact of sea transport on the ornithological nature reserve Zatoka Elbląska;
  • destruction of bird habitats for which Natura 2000 has been designated PLB280010 Zalew Wi郵any: white-tailed eagle, white-tailed tern, black tern, common grebe, mute swan, headshark, tufted duckling and goldeneye.

Therefore, it turns out that the protests of ecologists do not result from care for the environment, but are anti-Polish, incompatible with the Polish interest.

So the aim of the new act is not transparency, as Woś says, but to control inconvenient NGOs and show them to society as agents of foreign influences. If such changes come into force:

  • they will limit the possibility of obtaining grants from international organisations,
  • will lower the confidence of Poles in NGOs,
  • they will limit the freedom of NGOs (already limited by the National Institute of Freedom) and thus lose civil society.

The Law and Justice government has shown already in the first half of the first term that independent and active NGOs are rather an obstacle in the Law and Justice state. In 2016, “Wiadomości” TVP conducted a spectacular campaign against NGOs, and in 2017-2018 the National Institute of Freedom was established to control NGOs.