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News 22 Nov 17

Romanian NGOs Fear Pressure as New Bill Passes Senate

Romanian NGOs are anticipating heightened political pressure after a ruling Social Democrat Party-backed bill that obliges them to declare their donors twice a year passed the Senate. 

Ana Maria Touma
BIRN
Bucharest
Romanian government building, Bucharest. Photo: Istvan/Flikr

A bill submitted by Romania’s ruling Social Democrat Party, PSD, requires non-governmental organizations to declare their sources of funding every six months or face dissolution, causing great concern among civic activists and opposition party politicians in Bucharest. 

The bill passed the Romanian Senate on Monday and is set to pass the lower chamber this week – the ruling coalition of PSD and its junior ally, the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats, ALDE, holds the majority in parliament.

According to the document, all NGOs are obliged to publish a detailed list of donors, their jobs and the amount they donated in the Official Journal every six months, or else they lose their right to function within 30 days.

The bill also stipulates that an NGO cannot attain “public utility organisation” status unless it proves that it has not engaged in any political activity – fundraising or opposing a political party or candidate – in the previous two years. Public utility organisations are selected by the government and are entitled to a series of state subsidies. However, the most recent regulation on public funding for NGOs does not discriminate between listed and non-listed organisations.

The government did not endorse the bill, but the bill passed by default, as the Senate failed to debate it before its November 20 deadline.

Opposition MPs harshly criticised the document, with several MPs pointing out that it could be used as a means by which to silence criticism in civil society.

“Technically, the Social Democrats are bothered by civic organizations and don’t see their use to Romanian democracy,” an MP from Save Romania Union, Florina Presada (a former NGO worker) posted on her Facebook account.

Liberal MP Ovidiu Raetchi also reacted on social media, demanding that the Social Democrats withdraw the bill, which he termed “an act of censorship in disguise.”

“This bill is based on the idea that NGOs need to be supervised and controlled more strictly than companies, as if they were dangerous, and the only result will be making their lives harder,” he pointed out. He said that only Russia and China have imposed restrictions on NGOs because they base their narratives on foreign conspiracies.

“I don’t think this bill was properly thought through and it proves that they don’t really know what happens in reality in the NGO world,” Elena Calistru, resident and co-founder of Funky Citizen, an NGO set up in 2012 that fights against political apathy, told BIRN.

She said that so-called public utility NGOs were once selected by cabinets on political grounds, and the status was very sparsely allocated. Nowadays, new NGOs don’t usually apply for the status, because it is not as helpful as it once was. 

Publicising donors in the Official Journal is also somewhat futile; the most serious organisations working on transparency and anti-graft efforts already publish reports on donations they receive and how they spend them. Most are subject to auditing. “We, for instance, publish absolutely everything. Not extras  everything!” she stressed.

Calistru also said the move to control civil society and dissent is a regional trend among nationalist ruling parties. In several Central and Eastern European countries, political opposition is weak.

“In the absence of real political opposition, a part of civil society and the media acts like the opposition. That makes the ruling parties behave like the NGOs are the political opposition,” Calistru pointed out. She also says that many people simply don't believe that January 2017 anti-corruption protests were not organised by established NGOs, but by independent activists. 

Meanwhile, some lower chamber PSD MPs decided to go against the tide and say no to the bill.  Florin Manole, a former human rights activist, was one. “I will support my decision in the [Social Democrat] group and I also know that some of my colleagues agree with me,” he said in a post on Facebook on Monday.

However, MP Liviu Plesoianu, the author of the bill, also said on social media on Sunday that he will not change his mind and will keep promoting the bill. “We are intelligent enough in this country to understand that if someone acts as an NGO, they don’t necessarily have good intentions,” he wrote.

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