SLOVAKIA: We started discussing shrinking civic space before it was too late – Interview with VIA IURIS’ Ivana Kohutková

Slovakia has made the international headlines after investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, were shot dead in February 2018. The murder sparked protests opening tumultuous times for civil society organisations accused by government representatives of being ‘foreign agents’ attempting to destabilise the country. However, associations found themselves prepared for the challenge, as they had learned from previous experiences in Hungary and Poland and re-organised their work before the tensions peaked. We spoke with Ivana Kohutková, coordinator of VIA IURIS’s programme Civil Society, to learn more about the state of civic space in Slovakia.

VIA IURIS is a civic organisation operating in Slovakia since 1993. Its core mission is to defend the rule of law, protect civic rights and support civil society. Together with the Slovak Youth Council and the Center for Philantrophy, it formed a coalition – “The voice of civil society organizations” – that provides space for coordination against shrinking civic space and finding common grounds on key civil society issues.

  1. Recent Presidential elections in Slovakia are raising hopes to progressive forces all across Europe. What is the situation concerning space for civil society?

The dissatisfaction with the current government as well as the constant engagement of civil society, following the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée in February 2018, have been partially translated into the victory of Zuzana Čaputová in the Presidential elections. Zuzana Čaputová is a lawyer and a former civic activist who worked with VIA IURIS. But this is not the end. In February, we have parliamentary elections and, given the strong polarisation of society, the elections’ results might be either very positive or, on the contrary, very negative. The political situation is changing dramatically, and future developments are unpredictable.

Anti-CSOs rhetoric is not so much present in the political mainstream anymore, but the discussion has been already intoxicated. Hate speech against CSOs flourishes on disinformation websites and the anti-system landscape. Thus, the Slovakian society must be ready to defend and fight not only for the principles of free and open civil society but also for core democratic values and institutions. But, generally speaking, Slovakia has currently well-established basic legislative and financial framework governing the registration, operation, support and control of CSOs.

On the other hand, in August, the Slovak far-right party Kotlebovci – ĽSNS submitted a new legislative proposal aimed to label a significant part of NGOs receiving funds from abroad as “foreign agents”. The proposal also suggested to establish a Central Register of Foreign Agents under the Ministry of the Interior and organisations that would not apply would be shut down. This third attempt of the far-right party, currently the most prominent opposition party according to opinion polls, to submit such law did not receive support from the Parliament. Nevertheless, attempts to change the CSOs legislation are verbally supported by other politicians.

  1. Delving more into the monitoring mechanism that you put in place, can you provide more information on how it works?

The attacks on the civil society, mainly coming from the environment of the extreme right and the disinformation scene have intensified in the last two years and have become an integral part of the communication of several politicians. It is particularly worrying that the arguments, common to non-democratic and anti-system parties, have also been adopted by several top representatives of the Slovak Government and the coalition parties present in the Parliament. These attacks successfully influence public opinion and can lead to legislative changes harmful to civil society.

In order to have a complex picture, we monitor media, and political and legislative environment and spot attempted or actual attacks that might have a destructive impact on civil society. A monitoring report is then shared weekly with the organisations part of the coalition with the general aim to properly respond to such attacks. In general, organisations decide themselves how to react, either by legal or communication means. VIA IURIS can provide them with such support or can recommend other people or organisations to help.

  1. How do you manage to motivate organisations to remain engaged also at times of low pressure?

It is difficult to answer yet as the coalition is still relatively new. In general, I would not say we are living times of low pressure. However, we attempt to keep people motivated by organising national meetings, providing training and consultations, working in groups on specific topics, sharing positive stories from the civil society environment, etc.

  1. What can European civil society learn from the Slovakia example?

Unlike in Hungary, we had managed to start discussions about shrinking space for civil society and about problems we face before it was too late. We were able to mobilise ourselves and form the coalition together. Thanks to this, we can quickly react when the situation gets worse, and we are prepared to be proactive when needed, as well. It is necessary to think about the role of CSOs in our society in its 30-year historical perspective and pay attention not only to the quality of the legal and fiscal framework, but also the landscape of values in which civil society carries out its activities.