Lex Woś. Solidarna Polska wants to ‘deputinise’ NGOs with an Act taken straight from Putin’s Russia

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Journalist at OKO.press. Graduated in law and philosophy from University of Warsaw.

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Lex Woś is part of the government camp’s actions targeted at the third sector of social organisations, but the moment is particularly important.



‘These are regulations that led to the closure of many institutions in Russia. And they are being presented in Poland at a time when Russia has attacked Ukraine, previously destroying the civic society with such Acts of law. There is no way of commenting on this,’ says Szymon Osowski from Watchdog Polska.

 

Solidarna Polska MPs led by Michał Woś presented a bill on 30 March ‘on the transparency of financing of non-governmental organisations’. This is a new version of the regulations first mentioned back in 2020.

 

While referring to reports in the German media which found that some NGOs operating in Germany were being financed by Russia, Michal Woś stated that ‘Poland also needs deputisation with regard to the activities of certain NGOs’.

 

‘The representatives of the NGOs themselves are constantly emphasising how important the principle of transparency is to the third sector. This is the purpose of introducing the obligation for NGOs to disclose information on support, as well as on support received from abroad. The new regulations will be a guarantee of good practices of NGOs and the implementation of their postulates in this respect,’ we read in the justification of the bill. ‘They will also give the public greater knowledge about the activities of the NGOs. Citizens have the right to know where the funds of a given non-profit organisation come from – whether, for instance, it is from small donations or from foreign co-financing’.

 

Lex Woś is part of the government camp’s actions targeted at the third sector of social organisations, but the moment is particularly important.

 

‘Solidarna Polska’s bill is outrageously and despicably – according to the worst Putinist and Orbanist models – taking advantage of the war situation in Ukraine to attack independent social organisations that provide the much needed help today.

 

Throwing this in now, when a great deal of money from international and foreign organisations is flowing into Poland to social organisations that have been and are being suppressed by this government, is positively deliberate. They know their organisations will not see this money, and those they wanted to kill are now doing the most necessary work. And if it were not for the foreign funds and grants from foreign donors which they received over the last few years to continue their operations, there would be no one to handle aid for the refugees today. Because this government has cut them off from all public funds and from donations from Polish companies,’ Ewa Kulik from the Stefan Batory Foundation tells us.

 

Stigmatise the ‘agents’

What does the Act contain? ‘Non-governmental organisations which have revenues from statutory activity for the previous financial year of more than PLN 250,000 or public benefit organisations with an income from statutory activity for the previous financial year of more than PLN 250,000 must collectively present information on the sources of project financing to the National Court Register within 3 months of the end of the financial year.’

 

In the event of receiving foreign funding, they must additionally provide information on the entity from which they received the payment and provide information on this on their websites. This information is to be permanently displayed there.

 

If the revenue from statutory activity exceeds a million zlotys, these obligations are significantly increased.

 

It arises from the wording of the Act that it is not only about a one-time notification of the support received, but about permanent elements in the communication. This is because Article 4 states that organisations ‘shall provide information on the sources of financing of projects without undue delay, taking into account the categories specified in the Annex to the Act, by audiovisual, audio or visual means’.

 

Information on financing is to appear, among other things, on the entity’s website ‘as a permanent element of the header of the site, so that the text stands out from the background, is visible, legible, still and positioned horizontally’. The same information is to be included on printed materials or graphics and videos posted in the Internet and is to constitute no less than 10% of the area displayed. In films and recordings, this information is also to be read out.

 

  1. The organisations referred to in para. 1, when publishing the information referred to in para. 1 and 2:
    1. in audiovisual form:
      1. shall post the information at the bottom of the screen so that the text accounts for no less than 10% of the display area;
      2. shall post the information in such a way that the text stands out from the background, is visible, legible, still and positioned horizontally; 
      3. shall ensure that the text of the information can be read clearly, in Polish;
    2. in audio form – shall ensure that the text of the information is read clearly, in Polish, so that the duration of the transfer of the information is no less than 4 seconds; 
    3. in visual form:
      1. on the website – shall position the text of the relevant information as a permanent element of the header of the site, so that the text stands out from the background, is visible, legible, fixed and positioned horizontally;
      2. on social media profiles – shall include the text of the relevant information in the description of the NGO’s activities;
      3. on printed matter or graphics posted in the Internet – shall position the text of the relevant information at the bottom of the material so that it constitutes no less than 10% of its area, stands out from the background, is visible, legible, still and positioned horizontally.

 

Interestingly, in the assumptions to the bill Solidarna Polska presented in August 2020, an organisation in which the share of foreign revenues exceeded 10% of its revenues was obliged to announce on its website that it has the status of an organisation financed from abroad. If this were to be more than 30%, this information would need to be presented ‘in all audiovisual and visual materials produced, on its websites and in all its activities’.

 

There is no longer such a condition in the bill. This means that an organisation can have revenues amounting to millions of zlotys from small contributions of Polish citizens, but it is sufficient that it receives a grant or a contribution from abroad for 10,000 zlotys and it will be obliged to label itself everywhere as being ‘financed from abroad’.

 

Furthermore, foreign support can also be indirect and come from:

 

  • Polish legal persons which have foreign capital and their subsidiaries, in which the foreign share is more than 50%;
  • Polish non-governmental organisations, with at least 33% of revenues coming from abroad during the tax year.

 

In Putin’s footsteps

The objective is to stigmatise NGOs and create mistrust of them. Vladimir Putin was the first to come up with the idea for such a law. In Russia, associations receiving financing directly or through state agencies from foreign governments, international organisations, foreign citizens or stateless persons have been considered ‘non-profit organisations acting as foreign agents’ since 2012.

 

According to Amnesty International, during 4 years of applicability of the Act, 148 organisations found themselves on the list of ‘foreign agents’ in Russia, of which 27 were closed. The Centre for Social Policy and Gender Studies in Saratov and the Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms association in Moscow were among those that were closed down. This also happened to the Memorial association several months ago.

 

The example of the website of the independent portal, Meduza, shows how the information obligation imposed by the ‘Act on agents’ looks. The inscription on a grey background states: ‘This message (material) was created and (or) disseminated by foreign media acting as a foreign agent and (or) by a Russian legal person acting as a foreign agent’.

 

This, in turn, is how the Twitter feed of the independent TV channel Dozhd looks after recently suspending its operations as a result of the Kremlin’s repressions for reporting on the war:

 

Viktor Orban followed in Putin’s footsteps in 2017, while the CJEU held that his Act is incompatible with EU law. Israel also has similar legislation.

 

Public records

Organisations with revenues in excess of PLN 1 million will also be obliged to keep and publicise records of contributions (in excess of PLN 10,000) on their website. The register is to contain the forename, surname, father’s name and place of residence of the person making the contribution, the date of the contribution and its amount. The template of the records is to be specified in regulations.

 

Records of all agreements concluded by the organisation are to be kept in a similar manner.

 

The organisations are to be held accountable by the National Freedom Institute and, the failure to fulfil their obligations will result in a possible fine of up to PLN 50,000. In the case of non-compliance, the people responsible for keeping payment records will be liable to a prison sentence of up to two years. If fines are not paid, the organisations could be liquidated. The new regulations would become effective on 1 January 2023.

 

Other than the questionable intentions, the bill also contains a large number of inaccuracies and pitfalls.

 

‘The forename and surname, as well as father’s name is to be presented in the records of contributions from individuals. I have a question for the authors of this bill – how is the organisation to which the donation comes supposed to know the name of the father of the person who makes the donation? This information is unobtainable. No bank will provide it. I understand that such a transfer will therefore have to be returned, because otherwise there will be a risk of sanctions. And my second question – in which country is the father’s name part of the person being specified?’ comments Szymon Osowski, president of the Citizens Network Watchdog Poland association.

 

The tools for analysis are already in place

Even after the first announcements of Solidarna Polska’s bill in 2020, experts emphasised that the new solutions would duplicate existing regulations, as NGOs are already required to inform the tax office about donations in excess of PLN 15,000.

 

‘It is absolutely possible to obtain all the information needed under the current regulations in Poland on money laundering, keeping accounts, and information duties in reports that organisations have. When donating money to organisations in Poland, almost all institutional donors, such as international foundations supporting the civic society, publicly announce this and require the same from the beneficiaries. This information can be found on the websites of these organisations, where the logos of the donors are displayed. The objective of this law is already being pursued in Poland,’ explains Osowski.

 

‘After all, we managed to bring about the conviction of one person from the Lux Veritatis management board last week precisely for not wanting to disclose how they spend public money. All these instruments that the bill wants to implement already exist in Poland. This is not about transparency. The objective is to apply the sanctions and repressions provided for in this bill, which will be used to influence the organisations.’

 

Ewa Kulik argues: ‘What is such an Act for? After all, NGOs are already required to disclose funds received from legal entities (companies or institutions), both in the CIT 8/O tax return and publicly. If a one-off donation is made for more than PLN 15,000, or if the sum of all donations received in a given tax year from a single donor exceeds PLN 35,000, organisations have to provide a list of entities, together with their names, addresses and amounts to the Tax Office, as well as make this information available to the public by posting it in the Web, publishing it in the mass media, or displaying it for interested parties at generally accessible premises, and notify the relevant head of the tax office of this in writing.’

 

Who is shouting: stop, thief?

Minister Woś’s bill was not accepted by the government in 2020. It was pointed out in the official position at the time that, ‘according to the declaration of the Chairman of Solidarna Polska, Zbigniew Ziobro, this bill is only a legal proposal from this group, which has not been politically agreed upon within the United Right.’ Some time later, the Ministry of Culture started working on its own bill on reporting by NGOs.

 

The government has not yet commented on Solidarna Polska’s new, expanded law. Instead, politicians from Zbigniew Ziobro’s party have already started a campaign in the social media.

 

‘The lack of transparency in NGO financing has opened up a safe disinformation channel for Putin, especially in Western Europe. Just wait until it transpires that, in its resolutions and judgments against Poland, the EU refers to the same NGOs that were financed by the Kremlin.’ Marcin Romanowski writes.

 

Jerzy Kwaśniewski, the head of Ordo Iuris, also commented on the bill, pointing out that it would enable German influence to be traced in the debate on the rule of law. In turn, Janusz Kowalski recommends watching out for who does not like the bill, as it is most probably not to the liking of those taking money from Putin.

 

TVP’s news broadcast, ‘Wiadomości’ spoke favourably about the bill in its evening slot on 30 March. The material was entitled: ‘Protection against Russian manipulation’.

 

‘It is frightening that someone in Poland could come up with the idea to introduce something that is operating in Hungary and Russia into the public discourse. This is a campaign for branding organisations. These are regulations that led to the closure of many institutions in Russia. And they are being presented in Poland at a time when Russia has attacked Ukraine, previously destroying the civic society with such Acts of law. Now we have a war and refugee crisis in which a huge proportion of the work has been taken on by social organisations, having previously received foreign support. And now politicians want to stigmatise them with this Act. There is actually no way of commenting on this’, summarised Szymon Osowski.

 

The article was posted at OKO.press on 31 March 2022.



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Journalist at OKO.press. Graduated in law and philosophy from University of Warsaw.


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April 4, 2022

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