Does Polish government want to take away independence from the civil society? (Voice in a debate)

Since October 2016 I have observed that as regards the attitude of the authorities to free society we are moving dangerously close to the path taken by Russia and Hungary.

The moment of particular importance was the month-long attack of the public television on civic organisations in which children of persons perceived by the government as political opponents were among activists. Next, Prime Minister Beata Szydło announced that in order to prevent any irregularities in organisations, new law should be introduced. The attacks practically did not point out these irregularities, but the story was told in such a way so as to create an impression that there were many of them. An excellent construction in which you can defame someone and remain with “clean hands” from the legal point of view.

Does Polish government want to take away independence from the civil society?

Similar events took place first in Russia and then in Hungary. Two years ago I had a meeting with Hungarian organisations, and after the meeting I noted down:

“The organisations found out about the charges from the media. It was said that they were not objective, that they had political connections. First media attacks took place, then checks in their offices, then pointing out irregularities, seizing computers. After some time these actions were ruled illegal by the court”.

When I kept following the situation in Russia and in Hungary, I found out that organisations established by government supporters were doing well – they were paid handsomely from public funds. I recommend checking the website of the Hungarian organisation CÖF. On its English-language page it states that it supports itself from payments made by citizens. However, it is already known in Hungary that the donations are false and the organisation is paid by one of the state treasury companies and the foundation of the Fidesz party (the ruling party). What is more important, however, is that this organisation conducts the electoral campaign for the Hungarian government outside the formal framework appointed for such campaign. As a point of interest, I recommend photos on the English version of the page. A group of people at a demonstration is carrying a banner reading “Prawo i Sprawiedliwość” (Polish ruling party). The photos are signed “From our partners”.

“Freedom Institute” is preparing the way

It is difficult not to see similarities with our path.

The first step was the gradual takeover of taxpayers’ money. In the competition organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ruch Kontroli Wyborów – Ruch Kontroli Władzy (Elections Monitoring Movement – Authority Monitoring Movement) which was established in December 2015 had to show experience in implementing projects in the years 2013-2015. It is impossible to find out how they did it. The movement is recognised as a constituency of the ruling party.  On the other hand, the Autonomia Foundation which deals with empowering girls and women in counteracting violence had its subsidies withdrawn within a week. The procedure applied did not result either from the contract or the regulations of the ministerial competition from which they received them.

 Currently, the stage of systemic takeover of the money has commenced. The way is being paved by the Act on the National Freedom Institute – National Civil Society Development Centre currently proceeded on. Despite the ambitious name and objectives, for now it takes over only one government programme – Civic Initiative Fund – from the hands of the Ministry of Labour. The fund division procedures remain to be determined by the Director in the Regulations which are to be “approved” by the Council – the only body which is to offer a chance for  involving civil society representatives in the decision making.  Previously its counterparty (Steering and Monitoring Committee) had a leading role in this respect, and the competition rules were subject to consultations. In this Act there are no such provisions in sight.

We are keeping up with Orban and Putin

An important step in the takeover of money was last year’s smear campaign in the public television. Afterwards, the government, accusing organisations of becoming politicised, proposed a solution which directly gave politicians influence on decisions made. In fact it will not be a mistake to state that the power is to be wielded by a tandem – the Director of the “Freedom Institute” and the Minister to whom the former is subordinated. The fact that a new institution is established  outside the Ministry, does not provide a sufficient guarantee of independence from politicians. Previous procedures allowed the existence of various trends and the main thing I could fault them with would be reserving a pool of funds for the strategic evaluation by the Minister. Now the Minister, holding the role of the Chair of the Committee for Public Benefit Matters, may do as he or she pleases. The Director, who is fully subordinated to the Minister, is a one-person decision-maker in most cases.

In the recent weeks another media campaign has been started, the purpose of which is to make it difficult for those organisations which cannot be subordinated by cutting public funding. An impression is being built that independent organisations support third-party interests. We are starting to keep up with Putin’s Russia and Orban’s Hungary.

Who will be persecuted?

What is in store for us? I believe that on the pretext of protection against terrorism and increasing transparency we will be given an Act on financing from foreign funds, or at least its draft. We will also see the division of the CSOs community, which is already apparent now.

Firstly, because many organisations operate in an area with little political context and they cannot see how politics can damage their activity.

Secondly, because some organisations – for various reasons – support the actions undertaken by the authorities.

Thirdly, because some organisations will count on not being noticed by the government. This was the case in Russia. Unfortunately, in time any manifestation of independence was persecuted and after organisations dealing with human rights, also organisations dealing with animation of local communities started to be entered on the list of “foreign agents”. And foreign funding ceased to be the only reason.

There will also be a group of organisations which will defend those funded from abroad, and the state under the rule of law.

Attack strengthens civic spirit

But we are also going to see something good. People will go out into the streets. They will go out because we have reached a certain level of social involvement and interest in changes happening in our country. When the Act on Assembly was changed, you could only theorise. Now it is known that the purpose of the change was to give privileges to specific assemblies organised by representatives of the current government. When the battle for the Constitutional Court was raging, the society was not tired by the new government yet. Besides the last two years provided us, as a society, with good exercise in how to organise ourselves, how to observe standards (we can see what happens when you have neglected them), involving more people in activity. We know that people need values. We know that in order to involve young people we need certain distance and a little bit of cool, and not the aggressive language which had been used.

Each attack of the authorities strengthens the civic spirit in organisations because they must start to process communications immediately. Each attack shows that abstract standards of which they have been talking for years made sense. Because where – if not in the last debate – we will find more evidence that changes are required in the judiciary system? Where can we confirm that taking care of legislation standards is important if not using the opportunity of Acts enacted in a few days, which drastically change the situation of entire groups of citizens? How else could we learn that rights and freedoms are so important if not when we are losing them?

Positives … and sadness

This is why I am an optimist when it comes to social energy, thinking about what kind of state we want (definitely much better than now and previously), and development of those organisations which are now working on protecting citizens’ rights and think about the development of an environment which is friendly to civic engagment.

I am worried, however, that the divisions will leave a lasting mark. I am also worried about the personal cost suffered by leaders and employees of the organisations. And the fact that many initiatives which were not established in order to protect rights and freedoms, but rather to conduct a dialogue with the government and establish partnership relations, will reduce their activity or disappear completely. And in the recent times I have started to appreciate them a lot. It is them who created conditions for the development of independence of an organisation like mine – Citizens Network Watchdog Poland. They did it through the introduction of the status of public benefit organisations and the related privileges (it turned out that during the time of crisis the support for organisations dealing with protection of rights was  activated), through obtaining facilitations in public collections, and through taking care of the tax situation of grassroots organisations.

These are the mechanisms that offer true independence.


  August 2017

This is a translation of the voice taken in the debate taking part on the portal (adressed to Polish NGO sector)

More information on the Draft Act on the National Freedom Institute – Centre for the Development of Civil Society of Poland can be found on OSCE website.

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