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Civil society organisations (CSOs) in Slovakia are facing several threats to their independence and funding from the country’s new government, according to the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law.
A new report by the organisation notes that new Prime Minister Robert Fico said, on entering Government in late October, that he would end “the era of reign of political NGOs”. Another new member of parliament frequently alleges that CSOs are embezzling public money to finance specific political parties, while an official Government declaration has stated that foreign-funded CSOs are attempting to influence democracy.
The report also says that Fico has indicated that he intends to “introduce a law creating a ‘foreign agent’ label that organisations which receive foreign funding would have to use in public”. The ECNL warns that this could make corporate donors nervous and liable to withdraw funding. In addition, there have been threats to withdraw public funding from certain groups, through statements which appear designed to undermine public trust.
This environment puts a huge strain on the “understaffed and underfunded” sector, it says, placing a “heavy burden” on the mental health of CSO employees.
As Fundraising Europe recently reported, a total of 12 European countries have had their CIVICUS Monitor rating for civic space downgraded since 2018, with Germany recently rated ‘narrowed’ rather than open. ECNL says that developments in Slovakia “are part of a broader trend”, commenting:
“The trend of stigmatising civil society through the ‘foreign agent’ narrative has been growing in Europe… While the European Court of Justice ruled against the Hungarian transparency law, the Georgian government was forced to retract the law after mass protests. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, CSOs are targeted through a foreign agent law proposed in Republika Srpska.”
However, the ECNL report says that CSOs in Slovakia have been successful in a campaign opposing a change to tax laws, which could have negatively impacted their finances.
The sector has also gathered more than 37,000 signatures for an open letter to the European Commission opposing numerous proposed reforms, leading to the Commission advising the Government not to proceed.
The ECNL report, which was co-founded by the European Union, says:
“The situation in Slovakia is therefore not unique. There are lessons Slovak CSOs can take from other contexts, and how Slovak CSOs respond to the situation can also serve to inspire others. It is important to act to protect civil society before the situation deteriorates.”
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