With the independence of Poland’s judiciary in tatters and public service media under its thumb, the government has moved on to its next target: civil society. It’s a deeply disturbing assault on the rule of law: we need independent courts to make sure the government acts within the law. We need an independent media to make sure that the government can't brainwash the population. And we need NGOs so that the people can engage with politicians and hold them to account.
Through a law that entered into force on October 16, the PiS (Law and Justice) government now controls the process of distributing public funding to non-governmental organisations. A new body, the National Institute of Freedom – Centre for Civil Society Development, will now decide which NGOs receive public funds. Although a board of directors oversees the Institute, NGO representatives will make up only a minority of this board, with the remainder appointed by the government. NGO representatives would therefore be unable to block decisions by the PiS-appointed majority.
Moreover, the prime minister’s office will appoint the director of the institute, who will have vast decision-making power. Because the rules for funding competitions are not explicitly spelled out by the legislation, an immense amount of discretion in this area is given to the director. The law also allows him or her to delegate public tasks to particular NGOs. This results in the director having almost complete control over the distribution of public funds.
Politicising civil society funding
The previous system of distributing funds was decentralised: independent organisations would determine how to allocate public money from the EU and the EEA/Norway Grants. (The latter are funds given by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway to go towards strengthening fundamental European values such as democracy, tolerance and the rule of law, in exchange for those countries gaining access to the EU's single market.) This process was transparent and was not political. Under the National Institute of Freedom, funds will be allocated ‘independently or by way of an open call for proposals’. Why there are two methods and what ‘independent’ really means is unclear. But in case there were any doubts about the government’s intentions, PiS Senator Andrzej Bobko said that just as the government cannot use public funds to support ‘an organisation whose mission is to promote the flat Earth theory’, it also couldn’t support ‘an organisation that promotes harmful theories regarding sexuality’. This is most certainly a reference to LGBTI organisations.
The government’s takeover of NGO funding could be especially harmful in Poland, where civil society is both huge – there are roughly 100,000 registered NGOs in the country – and hugely important: NGOs manage roughly 8% of the education system and nearly every homeless shelter and athletic association. And, of course, there is the critical work they do to protect the rights of women, minorities and other marginalised groups, and to hold the government to account.
To carry out this work, Polish NGOs receive roughly €1 billion in public funds each year, either from the government or local administrations. The minister of culture, Piotr Glinski, said the new institute was necessary to address “the needs of NGOs, especially smaller, local NGOs, which have not received adequate support to date." This sounds noble, but in fact the vast majority of ‘smaller, local NGOs’ in Poland are directly tied to the Catholic Church, while the largest and most reputable organisations, like Liberties member the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, deal with issues PiS does not support, like migration and LGBTI rights. Giving the government control over these organisations’ access to public funds would allow it funnel money to groups who work on issues it cares about while neglecting others.
The Polish government’s campaign against NGOs is getting help from state-friendly media outlets. The country’s main public news service, TVP 1 – which observes agree has become highly partisan since PiS took power – in October 2016 aired at least seven broadcasts related to NGOs. The programmes portrayed civil society groups as criminals, alleging that as many as 10 prominent Polish NGOs receive their funds through fraud and corruption. All of the allegations made during the programmes were unsupported by any evidence. Instead, eye-catching graphics portrayed the NGOs as mafia-style groups that grew rich from taxpayers’ money and took their marching orders from George Soros.
The government has also involved the country’s police forces in its crackdown against civil society. Last month, two women’s rights groups that participated in mass protests against the country’s restrictive abortion had their offices raided by police. Computers and documents crucial to their work were seized. The Women’s Rights Centre, one of the two groups targeted by the raids, considered the event a “pretext or warning signal to not engage in activities not in line with the ruling party.”
Using the media to slander NGOs can be especially dangerous because it encourages people to oppose them as well, often with violent consequences. Indeed, physical attacks against NGOs have coincided with the government’s smear campaign. Towards the beginning of 2016, the offices of two LGBTI rights groups were broken into, and the investigation was quickly dropped because authorities claimed it would be impossible to identify the attackers. In June of this year, unknown perpetrators ransacked the Poznań office of the Stonewall Group, an LGBTI rights organisation.
As seen in Hungary
Poland’s attempt to control funding for independent NGOs is not without precedent. In 2014, the Hungarian government initiated a smear campaign against NGOs and the Norwegian government, accusing the latter of using the Norway/EEA Grants to influence politics in Hungary. In September, police raided the offices of Ökotárs and DemNet, two NGOs responsible for distributing the Norway Grants. The private homes of their employees were also raided, all under the guise of an investigation into ‘fraudulent mismanagement of funds’.
The government never provided credible evidence to support its charge and the investigation seemed to fall dormant in the run-up to the national referendum on migrant quotes. Stung by the result of this – the vote was invalid because too few people went to the polls – the government renewed its attacks on NGOs, creating a new body to distribute funding and passing a law in June of this year that requires NGOs receiving foreign funding to register as ‘foreign agents’.
It is still too early to tell how severely the new process will obstruct the work of NGOs, in particular those that focus on migration, women’s and minority rights and LGBTI issues. In mid-October, representatives from Norway and Poland announced an agreement that will allow EEA grant money to continue to flow into the country. Yet it’s unclear which body will be responsible for distributing this money. It seems unlikely that the Batory Foundation will continue in this role.
Despite this uncertainty, this much is clear: the Polish government has created an uncertain environment for NGOs. Church-related groups and those that perform work that the government approves of will be favoured, while women’s and LGBTI rights groups will see cuts to their funding and greater scrutiny of their work. PiS now has almost total control over the judiciary, public service media and civil society – three critical bulwarks against authoritarianism. It’s a situation that should not be tolerated in the European Union. It is critical that the EU stands up against this democratic backsliding, or else risk it becoming normalised.
But the Polish people should not wait on Brussels to act against the new legislation. Public demonstration has already swayed the PiS agenda this year, when days of mass protests in cities across the country persuaded President Andrzej Duda to veto two controversial reforms to the judiciary. Now it is time for sustained public pressure to save independent civil society in Poland. It is also the time for people to support NGOs through volunteering and private donations – every little bit helps, and every little bit helps NGOs resist pressure through funding. And finally, the EU can do something right now, without directly butting heads with Warsaw: it can establish a European Endowment for Democracy to support NGOs working inside the Union.
These organisations work every day to defend our rights and freedoms. It is our turn to stand up and defend the defenders.