Bulgarian draft NGO law violates EU law and stigmatizes groups receiving foreign funding

Press release

Geneva-Brussels, July 21, 2020 - A draft NGO law, currently being debated in the Bulgarian Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee, falls short of European Union (EU) and international human rights standards, in particular on freedom of association. If adopted, the bill would seriously hamper the work of independent NGOs and stigmatize those that receive funding from abroad. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OMCT-FIDH), the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and IPHR call upon MPs to reject the draft law, which violates Bulgaria’s obligations under international and European law, and ensure an enabling environment for civil society.

The bill resembles a 2017 Hungarian law struck down last month by the EU’s top court due to its inconsistency with EU law and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Bulgaria’s draft bill was introduced in the Bulgarian Parliament a mere two weeks after the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled against Hungary. In this landmark case, the CJEU held that the Hungarian law unduly restricts the freedom of movement of capitals within the EU and amounts to unjustified interference with fundamental rights, including respect for private and family life, protection of personal data and freedom of association, as well as citizens’ right to participate in public life.

While the CJEU condemned Hungary for introducing discriminatory and unjustified restrictions on foreign donations to civil society organisations - unduly obstructing legitimate civil society work and stifling democratic debate - the Bulgarian draft bill presents the same characteristics and appears to be equally incompatible with EU law and standards. If passed in its current form, it would seriously hinder the work of NGOs receiving foreign funding and be in breach of EU law.

The draft law was introduced on July 3, 2020 by a group of MPs from the nationalist United Patriots party - a junior partner in the coalition government - to amend the Non-Profit Legal Persons Act, which regulates the status and activities of NGOs in Bulgaria. Officially, the proposed legislation aims to make the civil society sector more transparent. However, it was introduced in the context of repeated attempts by certain political parties - at both the right and the left of the spectrum - to infringe upon individuals freedoms and silence critical voices in Bulgarian civil society, especially organisations which receive funding from international donors. Such organisations are often stigmatised and vilified as “foreign agents” that undermine Bulgarian national identity, family values and sovereignty.

The draft bill imposes an obligation on every non-profit organisation registered “in the public benefit” that receives more than 1,000 Bulgarian lev (around 500 euros) from a foreign natural or legal person - with the exception of funds received from the EU - to declare this grant within seven days to the Ministry of Finance, along with “written evidence about the source of the funding”. This is then recorded in a special publicly accessible registry, maintained by the Ministry of Finance, for NGOs receiving foreign funding. No such obligation is envisaged for NGOs that receive funding from public or private sources within Bulgaria. Failure to declare foreign funding entails sanctions - from a fine up to the dissolution of the NGO.

In addition, the draft law inserts in the Anti-Corruption and Confiscation of Illegally Acquired Property Act an obligation for directors and members of the governing bodies of the NGOs receiving more than 1,000 lev from abroad to file a personal statement with the Anti-Corruption Agency on their personal financial situation, irrespective of whether they receive remuneration from the NGO. Like government officials, they can also be subjected to inspections from the agency. No such obligation exists for persons linked to NGOs that are funded from public or private sources inside Bulgaria.

Bulgaria’s draft law furthermore aims to undermine the newly elected Civil Society Council, composed of organisations critical of the current government. The bill strips the council of many of its functions, such as preparing the Action Plan of the Strategy for the Development of Civil Society (itself adopted by the government); exercising control of the action plan’s implementation; setting priorities for and determining the beneficiaries of funds set aside for NGOs in the State budget; and collecting information from central and local authorities on the effectiveness of public funding of the non-profit sector. By curtailing the Council’s functions and transferring its powers to the executive, these changes risk further undermining civil society’s independence and bringing it under control by the government.

We urge the Bulgarian Parliament to reject the draft law and thus send a strong signal to the government and the general public that the authorities are committed to respecting fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of association and citizens’ right to participate in public life. MPs should also reaffirm Bulgaria’s commitment, made upon entering the EU, to respecting and strengthening civil society’s fundamental role in a democratic state founded on the rule of law and strongly condemn any attempt at denying or undermining it.

Press contacts:
• OMCT: Ms. Iolanda Jaquemet, +41 79 539 41 06 / Email: ij@omct.org (Geneva)
• FIDH: Ms. Eva Canan, +33 6 48 05 91 57 / Email: ecanan@fidh.org (Paris)
• BHC: Mr. Krassimir Kanev, +359886605904 / Email: krassimir@bghelsinki.org (Sofia)
• IPHR: Mr. Simon Papuashvili, +32 880 03 99 / Email: simon.papuashvili@iphronline.org (Brussels)

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH. The objective of this programme is to intervene to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. OMCT and FIDH are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

BHC is an independent, non-governmental, not for profit organization, established in 1992. It promotes respect and strengthening of human rights in the Republic of Bulgaria, and focuses on defending the most vulnerable members of Bulgarian society: children, women, people with disabilities, ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities, and people deprived of liberty.

IPHR is an independent, non-governmental organization founded in 2008. Based in Brussels, IPHR works closely together with civil society groups from different countries to raise human rights concerns at the international level and promote respect for the rights of vulnerable communities.

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