Attacks on civil society and journalists increasing in Europe

By agency reporter
October 22, 2019

Transparency International Germany, the PEN Centre Germany, Reporters Without Borders Germany and Amnesty International Germany have called on the German Federal Government to work at the national and EU level to support civil society organisations and protect journalists. Shrinking space for civil society hampers the fight against corruption and human rights violations and threatens the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press in general.

Recent years have seen a worrying trend: state-supported attacks on civil society are increasing, while space for organisations and journalists that are critical of governments is shrinking. It is particularly alarming that governments in some EU member states – especially in Central and Eastern Europe – are increasingly putting civil society under pressure with so-called 'NGO laws'. As a consequence, civil society organisations are deprived of their funding or even dissolved, and critics are forced into exile. The political climate in many countries has deteriorated dramatically to the detriment of civil society organisations and social movements.

Hartmut Bäumer, Chair of Transparency Germany, commented: "Effective anti-corruption measures need a strong civil society. The German federal government must make sure that governments that trample on the rule of law in their countries and suppress dissenting voices do not remain in control of financial support from the EU.”

Julia Duchrow, Head of the Politics and Activism Unit of Amnesty International in Germany added: "We are increasingly facing such developments in member states of the European Union, for example in Italy, where maritime rescuers are criminalised, or in Hungary, where support of refugees, for example through legal advice, is punishable. At the same time, we are seeing substantial attacks on the rule of law in Poland and Hungary calling into question the independence of the judiciary and thus the protection of civil society."

Freedom of the press and expression in danger

Free, independent media are essential pillars of a democratic society and indispensable for uncovering corruption. According to Reporters Without Borders Germany, the situation of press freedom in Europe in 2018 has deteriorated more than in many  other regions of the world. Journalists in Europe are still among the world’s freest and safest, but even in EU member states, media workers were assaulted or even murdered last year, and authorities lack the will to clarify such crimes.

"Not only the cruel murder of investigative journalist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia, but also the Maltese authorities' lack of ambition to explain, has shown how much the rule of law in an EU country has been eroded by corruption", said the Vice President of the PEN Centre Germany, Ralf Nestmeyer.

"Organised crime, a corrupt judiciary, politicians and security authorities, who often benefit from criminal networks themselves, are fuelling a cycle of impunity time and time again: if no punishment is imminent, imitators feel encouraged. To break this vicious circle, political pressure from the outside is essential”, said Michael Rediske, board member of Reporters Without Borders Germany.

Lack of legal certainty in Germany

Civil society in Germany is hampered by initiatives to deprive non-profit status and attempts to restrict the rights of associations to take legal action. In February 2019, the Federal Finance Court (BFH) denied the non-profit status of Attac, stating that the organisation had neglected "political openness" in its campaigns. This decision leads to a serious uncertainty for civil society. The decision of the BFH is relevant for a large number of other politically active organisations, which are now in fear losing their non-profit status. The non-profit status is of fundamental democratic importance and its loss would be a threat to the existence of many civil society organisations.

The German Federal Minister of Finance, Olaf Scholz, has announced that he will present a bill in October 2019 to amend the non-profit status law.

Responding to this, Hartmut Bäumer said: "We expect the Federal Minister of Finance to create legal certainty for politically active organisations. Civil society organisations in Germany must be allowed to express themselves politically within the framework of the free democratic constitution."

* Transparency International https://www.transparency.org/

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