SLOVAKIA: NGO draft law stigmatises CSOs, mirroring Hungary’s path 

Article written for the Civic Space Watch by Agapi Antonaki, European Civic Forum, on 13/06/2024.

The Slovak government, led by Prime Minister Robert Fico, has recently proposed amendments to the Civil Society Organisations’ (CSOs) framework law, namely the Laws on Civic Associations, the Law on Foundations, the Law on Non-Investment Funds, the Law on Nongovernmental Organisations (NGOs) Providing Public Benefit Services, the Law on Conditions of Activities of Organisations with International Element, and the Law on Register of NGOs. Fico initially proposed the idea in 2018, suggesting that the large-scale public demonstrations following the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová – after which he was forced to resign from the post of prime minister – were orchestrated by NGOs funded by philanthropist George Soros. 

Under the guise of increasing transparency, the proposed amendments, put forward by the far-right coalition member the Slovak National Party (Slovenská Národná Strana – SNS, require organisations which receive over €5,000 in foreign funding to be labelled as “organisations with foreign support” and disclose their donors. The proposal also includes provisions for abolishing NGOs that fail to comply with reporting requirements, a move seen as authoritarian and potentially damaging to civil society. 

According to the explanatory report that accompanied the amendments, “[t]he aim of this proposal is to increase the transparency of the financing of NGOs, which is a key element for strengthening public trust in NGOs in the form of publishing information about donations and donors if their amount exceeds a one-time or cumulative amount defined by law.” Opposition MPs criticised the proposal, highlighting that the amendment questions the credibility of non-profit organisations and “ostracises” them. When the Slovak government signed the coalition agreement in October 2023, Prime Minister Fico emphasised that “[it] marks the end of the rule of political NGOs in Slovakia.” Recently, in April 2024, parliamentarian Zuzana Stevulová from PS stated that the proposed amendments are also contrary to the Slovak Constitution, while Lucia Plaváková noted that the proposal is “stigmatising, as it labels certain NGOs, for example those that have financial resources from abroad” (unofficial translation from Slovak). 

In an interview with JOJ in March 2024 as part of the presidential debate, Peter Pellegrini – who at the time was running for the presidential elections – stated that he would sign a law that would label NGOs as foreign agents. At the same time, Robert Fico aimed to conclude actions against NGOs by summer 2024, as he mentioned in an interview. On 2 April 2024, the Chamber of Non-Governmental Non-Profit Organisations in Slovakia urged the government and MPs to reject the proposed amendments to the NGO law. The Chamber, led by Marcel Zajac, characterised the proposal discriminatory and in violation of both Slovak and European legislation. They argue that the amendment, similar to Hungary’s anti-NGO law under Viktor Orbán, would restrict the free movement of capital within the EU and violate the citizens’ right to freedom of association. Furthermore, they warned that such legislation could jeopardise EU funding for Slovakia. Zajac criticised the proposal for its potential negative impact on several types of NGOs and highlighted the need for a serious dialogue between the government and civil society representatives. He called for the rejection of the draft law and advocated for addressing the issues through constructive engagement within existing advisory bodies.  

“The proposal of SNS MEPs, which is more or less identical to the Hungarian anti-NGO law, restricts the free movement of capital within the European Union, thus contradicting the founding treaties of the EU, which take precedence over our laws. It unduly interferes with the freedom of association of citizens enshrined in the Constitution of the Slovak Republic, the European Convention for the Protection of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. SNS MPs have therefore tabled a law that they know is contrary to EU law under a 2020 ruling by the Court of Justice of the EU. By doing so, they proved that they are indifferent to the interests of people in Slovakia. By approving this law, we are getting closer to the fact that the European Union will stop EU funds for Slovakia. The cause will be the decisions of politicians, but unfortunately, we will all bear the consequences” (unofficial translation from Slovak), emphasised Katarína Batková, a lawyer and one of the representatives of the Civic Platform for Democracy (Občianskej platformy pre demokraciu).  

While both the Slovak and Hungarian laws target NGOs receiving foreign funding, there are some differences. The Slovak law sets a higher threshold of €5,000, compared to Hungary’s threshold of €1,500. Moreover, the Slovak law extends its scope to include all types of NGOs, while Hungary’s law exempts certain organisations such as religious groups and sports associations. Moreover, the Slovak law grants significant powers to the Ministry of Interior to dissolve NGOs directly, while Hungary’s law requires a court decision for dissolution. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) officially ruled on 18 June 2020 that Hungary’s law on the transparency of organisations supported from abroad (European Commission v Hungary, case C-78/18) does not comply EU law, including provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, and has introduced discriminatory and unjustified restrictions on CSOs. This ruling further underlines the concerns raised about the proposed Slovak anti-NGO law and its potential infringement of EU principles. 

Slovak CSOs have expressed their concerns over the proposed amendments, which would pose significant threats to their functioning. These threats include stigmatisation and alienation of CSOs, loss of funding opportunities, and chronic stress and overload on CSO staff. In response, civil society has adopted several strategies, such as advocating for their importance, engaging with international bodies to raise concerns about legislative changes, and using EU law and participatory tools to protect civic space.  

On 23 April, the Government Council for Non-Governmental Non-Profit Organisations, an advisory body to the government of Slovakia, dismissed the amendment to the NGO law. “This law will not increase the transparency of the civil sector in any way – this law confuses the whip on active citizens, makes fundamental distinctions between different forms of private capital, stigmatises civil society and intolerably increases state bureaucracy,” highlighted Marcel Zajac, who is also the Deputy Prime Minister of the Government Council for NGOs. 

Notably, Amnesty International released a statement on 30 April 2024, strongly condemning Slovakia’s proposed anti-NGO law, deeming it a “full frontal assault on civil society”. The law, if passed, would impose burdensome bureaucratic and financial requirements on NGOs, potentially hindering their activities and even leading to their demonisation. Amnesty argued that the law, similar to Hungary’s draconian NGO legislation, infringes international human rights law standards and international treaties that have been ratified by Slovakia. They called for the Slovak government to protect and support the vital work of NGOs in creating a safe and enabling environment for their activities instead of placing obstacles and hindering their activities.  

EU officials have expressed their concerns on the NGO bill, as it could violate the rule of law and undermine democratic principles, following Hungary’s path. “The Commission is way more inclined to not repeat the mistakes that happened in Hungary about a situation that was tolerated for way too long and Orbán was allowed to escalate,” European Parliament Vice President Martin Hojsík (PS) commented. Despite these concerns, SNS will not withdraw the proposed law, as Andrej Danko argued at a press conference on 24 April 2024. The draft law has moved to second reading and, if passed, could take effect on January 1, 2025. This development comes amidst other controversial moves by Fico’s government, including attempts to increase state control over the public service broadcaster RTVS and dismantle key institutions, which have raised concerns. 

Věra Jourová, Vice-President of the European Commission and European Commissioner for Values and Transparency, visited Bratislava on 24 and 25 April 2024, as part of a “Democratic Tour” ahead of the European elections. At a press conference on 25 April, she stressed that the proposed amendments on NGO law contradict the above-mentioned ruling of ECJ on the case of Hungary. Lastly, she argued that the European Commission has no intention of freezing EU funding for Slovakia, as long as they have legal guarantees that the funding will not be abused. Due to EU’s pressure, the ruling coalition is considering dropping the labelling of NGOs as organisations supported from abroad. Following Jourová’s visit, Slovakia’s deputy prime minister Peter Kmec (Hlas) stated that “[t]he Hlas party rejects this. A new draft is being prepared by the Interior Ministry. Our commitment to EC Vice-President Věra Jourová was that any new legislation would reflect on the findings regarding the Hungarian precedent.” On 6 May, Hlas MP Samuel Migal said on TA3 television that the draft law will be modified further, and the labelling of NGOs as foreign agents will be dropped. On 13 May, Kmec confirmed that modifications will be made to the law which will reflect EU’s concerns about Hungary’s former legislation. 

Lastly, in a letter to Slovakia’s parliamentary leadership on 14 May 2024, Michael O’Flaherty, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, urged MPs not to accept the draft law in its current form, citing inadequate procedural safeguards, failure to meet the requirements of necessity and proportionality, and a potential chilling effect on civil society. However, regarding the chilling effect, Zuzana Petková, a former journalist and current leader of Zastavme korupciu (Stop Corruption) NGO, argued that it had already taken hold since Fico regained power. However, she went on to add that if the government does indeed abandon the labelling of NGOs, as rumoured, it would be a positive development.