The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) has worked on the legal framework for civil society in over 100 countries. In this contribution to the CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report, we examine three global trends that ICNL observed in 2012: 1) barriers to foreign funding, 2) constraints on assembly, and 3) impediments to communication.
- Barriers to foreign funding
In the wake of the arrests of NGO staff in Egypt in December 2011, a number of other countries have targeted the foreign funding of CSOs in 2012. Russia was perhaps the most prominent example, but, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Nicaragua and Pakistan were also considering or have already adopted foreign funding restrictions. Egypt, Ethiopia and Russia appear to have spurred a ‘contagion effect’, which occurs when globally influential countries impose restrictions that embolden other governments to adopt their own restrictive measures. In 2005 and 2006, for example, Russia’s restrictive NGO Law galvanised the first wave of civil society legal constraints after the ‘Colour Revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine. Now Egypt, and Russia, again, are paving the way for a second wave of restraints in the wake of the Arab Spring. Among the steps taken by governments to restrict funding for CSOs in 2012 were the following:
- In January 2012, the Government of Bangladesh issued the draft Foreign Contributions (Voluntary Activities) Act, which would prohibit individuals and organisations from receiving foreign funding for carrying out any voluntary activity without prior government approval.
- In February, the Pakistan Muslim League’s Tariq Azeem introduced Pakistan’s Draft Foreign Contributions Regulations Act, which would allow the government to deny a CSO permission to receive foreign funding if the CSO is likely to use the funding for ‘undesirable purposes’. Senator Azeem said, “Many countries in the world have started legislating to properly regulate functions of NGOs. Egypt recently arrested representative of 27 NGOs…”
- In June, in Nicaragua, the Law to Create the Unit of Financial Analysis (UAF) was approved and went into effect in September. It purports to be aimed at countering money laundering and terrorism financing, but is drafted in vague language that allows the UAF to investigate virtually any information about any CSO or individual at any time.
- In July, Russia enacted a law requiring CSOs that receive foreign funding and conduct ‘political’ activities to register as ‘foreign agents’. Further, Russia expelled USAID from Russia, effective 1 October 2012.
- In October, MPs in Malaysia proposed a law that would compel all CSOs to declare to the Registrar all funds received from local or foreign sources. An MP said, “[T]he influx of foreign funds will cause us to become agents of foreign powers.” Notably, in September, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which is an intergovernmental body that works with governments to implement its money laundering and anti-terrorist financing recommendations, began its assessment of Malaysia.
- Also in October, Egypt released a draft law that would provide a Central Audit Organisation with unbridled discretion to prohibit CSOs from receiving funding from abroad, with any violation resulting in a prison sentence of more than one year and a fine of US$16,000.
- In November, the British Virgin Islands enacted a bill that requires non-profit organisations with more than five persons to have an Anti-Money Laundering Reporting Officer on staff. In addition, any person who operates an unregistered organisation will be liable to a fine of up to US$50,000 or imprisonment for a term up to three years, or both.
- In Tajikistan, the Ministry of Education established new rules demanding that all forms of cooperation with international organisations must be approved in advance by the Ministry. This rule applies to all educational institutions, including secondary schools. The Ministry also sent instructions to university heads informing them that students are prohibited during classroom hours from attending any conferences, meetings or other gatherings funded by international organisations.
- In December, in India, The Minister of State for Home Affairs said he would have a “re-look” at India’s Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, 2010, with the aim to “plug loopholes that are perceived to be vulnerable to abuse by foreign intelligence agencies.”
2. Constraints on assembly
In addition to funding constraints, in 2012 a wide range of governments continued to impose measures restricting the ability of individuals to dissent, demonstrate, and exercise their freedoms of assembly and expression. For example:
- Malaysia’s Peaceful Assembly Act went into effect in April 2012. The law bans street protests and prohibits non-citizens from participating in protests.
- In June, Russia’s President Putin signed into law amendments to the Code on Administrative Violations to the Law on Assemblies, Meetings, Demonstrations, Marches and Picketing, which increased fines for breaching provisions of the law by 150 times for individuals and 300 times for organisations. The new maximum penalty for participation in a protest that is not in accordance with government regulations is up to 300,000 Rubles (approximately US$9,000) for individuals and up to one million Rubles (approximately US$32,000) for organisations.
- Similarly, in Azerbaijan, amendments to the Law on Assembly dramatically increased penalties against participants and organisers of protests that are not sanctioned by government. For example, if the organiser of an unsanctioned protest is a CSO, then the CSO can be fined up to US$38,000.
- In May, the National Assembly of Quebec, Canada passed Bill 78, which restricts protest or picketing on or near university grounds and requires organisers of a protest consisting of 50 or more people in a public venue anywhere in Quebec to submit their proposed venue and route to the police for approval.
- In Bahrain, the Ministry of Interior announced an order in late October criminalising marches or gatherings. The Ministry said it was “fed up” with protests and that “there was a need to put an end to them.” Then, on 6 November, the government revoked the citizenship of 31 individuals engaged in civil society, including opposition activists and lawyers.
- Iraq proposed a draft law that would impose undue ‘time, place and manner’ restrictions on assemblies and ban slogans that are inconsistent with “public order or morals.” The draft law remains pending.
- In July, the Attorney General of the Fiji Islands suspended a law that required a permit from the Commissioner of Police to hold a public meeting, but the suspension does not apply to meetings at “public roads or parks” or where “three or more people…discuss politics.”