Published on November 28, 2017

A slippery slope: using transparency to curb civil liberties

Open government

By Andreas Pavlou

Andreas Pavlou is Network Lead at Involve and coordinates the UK Open Government Network. He believes that increased transparency, better citizen participation mechanisms and greater accountability are key to improving decision-making in government and the quality of democracy in the UK.

Do we want to go down the road of charities reporting funding from outside the UK?

A functioning and vibrant civil society and charity sector is essential for any healthy and open democracy. Among many other things, these organisations advocate for individual dignity and human rights, defend democratic values, foster public debate, and hold public officials to account.

So, it is bad news for everyone when actions are taken that have the effect of limiting the impact of these organisations.

Sometimes the application of these limits are unintentional – new regulations on funding or reporting can place an unfair administrative burden or can lead to the bankruptcy of (particularly smaller) organisations. On other occasions the actions are clearly intentional – such as by forcing the closure of offices or arresting staff, as was done recently to the chapter of Amnesty International in Turkey.

In some countries, however, regimes severely restrict civic space and silence dissenting or critical civil society voices by exploiting and manipulating transparency or reporting rules for ‘reasons’ of ensuring national security, stopping terrorist financing or increasing financial accountability. It is here where (semi-)open societies suddenly find themselves heading down a slippery slope towards limited democratic and civic rights, or even authoritarian government.

Some examples from CIVICUS Monitor exemplify the issue:

  • In Russia, civil society organisations have to declare all international funding. The “foreign agents” law has been used as a way to single out civil society organisations collaborating internationally and has been extended to include media outlets.
  • In Hungary, charities receiving over €24,000 in foreign funding had to be registered as, and publicly display they were, “foreign supported” civil society organisations following the passage of a law that has been connected to a broader clampdown on civic freedoms.
  • In Jordan, restrictions relating to international funding have been used to target civil society organisations working to promote human rights and freedom of expression. While groups claim they have the necessary registration to access international funds, Jordanian authorities are increasingly using the registration of foreign funds as a tool to silence critical voices.
  • India recently tightened regulation which required groups to declare and then apply for a special license to access funds from abroad. Reports allege that 20,000 civil society organisations were subsequently unable to attain the necessary license to legally access international funding.

So to see the UK Charity Commission also propose measures related to the reporting and collection of charity income from outside the UK is of concern, not only because of the impact it may have on UK civil society, but more importantly because of the message it sends out to undemocratic regimes around the world which are looking for examples from ‘the West’ to legitimise their actions and silence their critics.

That is why Involve raised these concerns in its submission to the recent Charity Commission consultation on annual returns which proposed reporting requirements on foreign funding of UK charities.

The Charity Commission should carefully assess not only the potential impact of its proposed reporting requirements on charities operating in the UK, but also the wider global impact of adopting these measures, as going down this road of reporting foreign funding in the UK may undermine global efforts to protect civic space in other countries where civil society is under threat.

 

Feature photo: ‘Money’ by Thomas Hawk on Flickr (Creative Commons licence), see https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/178711986

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