The government is preparing an attack on NGOs in Poland
The Ministry of the Environment has started work on a plan to disclose the financing of NGOs. In this plan, NGOs will be obliged to state that they are being financed from abroad. Laws like this already operate in Russia, Hungary, and Israel.
by Magdalena Chrzczonowicz
In the interview with TV Trwam (a fundamentalist Catholic TV station, a part of business empire of priest and mogul Tadeusz Rydzyk, who openly supports PiS and has been receiving millions of zlotys from public funds) on May 9, the Minister of the Environment Michał Woś revealed his idea for NGOs.
Woś started with the environmentalists: “These people are manipulated by outside forces, they get caught up in emotional games. Lobbyists and big business also operate there.” He then presented his idea for ‘disciplining lobbyists’:
“I have set up a working group in the ministry working on getting NGOs to disclose their funding, and not just the environmental ones, because it will benefit the whole of Poland if all organisations practice financial transparency. They will be able to show whether they are financed from foreign funds or not. Those that are should inform the Polish people about it,” said Woś.
He explained: “The Polish people have the right to know whether those who are strongly protesting at some investment, on the Vistula Spit, whether these organisations are acting in the interest of Poles, at the request of Poles, from contributions from Poles, or whether there are foreign organisations that are even paying some people to protest at this particular place.
The Vistula Spit is being dug up, and some organisations have expressed deep dissatisfaction at this. Some say that the expert opinions showing that this dig should not have taken place were originally written—although I don’t know this, it still has to be checked—in the Cyrillic alphabet.”
Back in March 2020, Minister Woś boasted that he was working on a law on establishing the ‘openness’ of ecological organisations. At that time, we asked the ministry what solutions Woś had in mind and whether it was already known who would be on the working party, but we still haven’t received an answer. However, in the interview with TV Trwam, the minister refers to all NGOs. This is a dangerous idea straight out of Putin’s Russia.
Putin’s Russia, Orban’s Hungary, Netanyahu’s Israel
The idea of ‘disclosing funding from abroad’ was first conceived by Vladimir Putin and implemented in 2012. In Russia, associations that receive funding directly from or through state agencies, international organisations, foreign citizens or stateless persons are designated as ‘non-profit organisations acting as foreign agents’.
According to Amnesty International, within four years of the law coming into force 148 organisations, including the famous Memorial, were added to the list of ‘foreign agents’ in Russia, of which 27 have been closed. These include the Centre for Social Policy and Gender Studies in Saratov, and the Moscow-based Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms association.
In 2017, a similar law was adopted by the Orbán government in Hungary. It was preceded by a witch-hunt against non-governmental organisations and national consultations entitled ‘Stop Brussels’. Pursuant to this law, organisations that receive financial support from foreign sources in the amount of over 7.2 million forints (around €20,000) per year are obliged, under penalty of fines and removal from the register of associations, to register as being ‘financed from abroad’, and hence covered by a more stringent financial control regime and possible sanctions. Religious, sports and political foundations and associations are excluded from the law.
The law hinders the operation of organisations which monitor the government, defend human rights, etc. It was this lex NGO which caused Hungary to fall in the freedom and democracy rankings of institutions including Freedom House.
But the law most similar in shape to that proposed by Michał Woś is currently in force in Israel. Since 2016, human rights groups and organisations which receive more than half of their funding from outside the country, including the European Union, must report this in reports and official communication. What does that mean? Every e-mail, newsletter, mail, grant application, including in contacts with the press, must be accompanied by the annotation that ‘this organisation is financed from foreign funds’.
Benjamin Netanyahu uses a law perversely called the ‘transparency bill’ to mark those organisations that monitor the government’s compliance with human rights in the Palestinian Authority, and which—in the prime minister’s view—thus count as enemies of Israel’s interests. The act was criticised by international bodies, including the European Commission, which stated that it conflicts with the principles of freedom of speech, pluralism and democracy.
Russian agents on the Vistula Spit
Minister Woś’s statement is also shocking for another reason. He suggests that environmentalists who have been fighting against the dig on the Vistula Spit are being backed by Russia (“expert reports written in Cyrillic”). He added, just in case, “I don’t know, we have to check”; but his statement is unambiguous—the environmentalists are Russian agents (or their unwitting assistants).
The minister is probably referring to the complaint which environmental organisations brought to the European Commission, including Greenpeace Polska; or perhaps to the statement prepared by the Polish Ecological Club in 2016, which was supported by several dozen ecological organisations.
This study indicated that various negative environmental effects will occur as a result of the project, including:
- the destruction of the protected Natura 2000 habitats on beaches and dunes;
- a deterioration of the quality of the waters of the Vistula Lagoon;
- deterioration of the integrity of the Vistula Spit as a Natura 2000 site caused by the digging of a canal;
- the negative impact of maritime transport on the ornithological nature reserve of the Elbląg Bay;
- the destruction of bird habitats which Natura 2000 designated in the Vistula Lagoon (PLB280010), concerning species including the smew, the white-breasted tern, the black tern, the great crested grebe, the mute swan, the common pochard, the tufted duck and the goldeneye.
So it seems that the environmentalists’ protests do not stem from their concern for the environment, but are anti-Polish in motivation, apparently contrary to Polish interests.
Thus the aim of the new law is not to ensure transparency, as Woś says, but rather to control inconvenient NGOs and portray them to the public as agents of foreign influence. If such changes come into force:
- they will limit the possibility of obtaining grants from international organisations,
- they will reduce the Polish people’s trust in NGOs, and
- they will limit the freedom of non-governmental organisations (which has already been limited by the National Institute of Freedom) and thus lose the support of civil society.
In the first half of its first term, the PiS government had already shown that independent and active non-governmental organisations are an obstacle to the state it governs. In 2016, TVP News carried out a spectacular campaign against NGOs, and in 2017-18 the National Freedom Institute, whose aim is to control non-governmental organisations, was established.