Crackdown on Civil Society


CRACKDOWN ON CIVIL SOCIETY Civil society organisations defending human rights are increasingly targeted by repressive governments across the world. This movie will present some unbelievable stories about oppression, resistance and survival, told by human rights defenders who dedicated their lives to help the most marginalised groups of societies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. A good example for the repression of civil society in Hungary is how harm reduction organisations were treated after the change of government in Hungary in 2010. There was a massive change in the Hungarian drug market after 2010, classical drugs such as heroin and amphetamine were almost completely replaced by other injectable new stimulant drugs. – Everyone takes drugs here. Youngsters, adults, everyone does it. – You buy it, you have no idea what it is, shoot it and then figure it out. – These drugs are injected more frequently. – The demand for clean injecting equipment The demand for clean injecting equipment, needles went up. Harm reduction services in Hungary were not only threatened by budget cuts and lack of funding but also because of political attacks. That was very evident in the case of the District 8 where the local mayor Máté Kocsis launched a political campaign against needle exchange operated by an NGO called Blue Point. he accused the needle exchange program of attracting drug users to the district and being responsible for drug litter and drug related nuisance in the street he also mobilized fake NGOs, kind of GONGOs to organize demonstration against the needle exchange program – People of Józsefváros do not want the Blue Point! I call them to stop their extremely harmful inhumane and senseless activities. – As a result, the local NGO Blue Point had to close down just a few months later the second largest needle exchange program also closed down. Based on complaints filed by civil society organisations, the ombudsman for fundamental rights declared that that these closures violate human rights, and called to reopen the programs.  Just a few days after this statement of the Ombudsman was released I discovered in one morning that the newspapers are full with accusations against us and against me personally, claiming that I’m an agent of George Soros, serving foreign interests and they also leaked out some of the correspondence I had with one of the employees of the Ombudsman, in a manipulated way, saying that I manipulated the Ombudsman himself. – I am very sad to see that the drug lobby found it’s place into the Ombudsman’s office, and I call László Székely, to wipe them out of there! The Ombudsman even had to report to a parliamentary committee and he had to defend himself and it was completely nonsense of course, but it was a very effective strategy to silence us to discredit us, and to achieve that in the media there was no discussion about the real substance of the statement of the Ombudsman, but about my alleged relationship to the people who work in the Ombudsman’s office. the dramatic decrease in distributed needles resulted in an outbreak of Hepatitis C among injecting drug users, the prevalence of Hepatitis C doubled among injecting drug users in Budapest, in just three years, and most of these people who were the clients of needle exchange programs that were closed down in Budapest, became completely invisible for the treatment system Soon, not only harm reduction programs were targeted by government propaganda, but also virtually all non governmental organisations, which were critical of the government and served as democratic checks and balances of the ruling power. One of them was the NGO Ökotárs, which led the Consortium that was responsible for distributing the grants of the Norway civil funds, which supports democracy and civil society in Hungary. – It was a Monday. I got a phone call early in the morning when I was still at home, from a police officer stating that she’s here in the offices, where am I? and I said that I didn’t know they were coming, they didn’t make an appointment so by the time I got in I was kind of prepared for the fact that police officers were all around the place, more than 20 of them. They took away this pile of paper, which we only got back a year later. Ökotárs and later more than 60 other NGOs were investigated by the police, Government Audit Office and the Prosecutors office, but in the end no charges were filed. Orbán’s government and his media machine did not stop attacking NGOs. claiming they are foreign agents, serving foreign interests. – We are not facing civilians here. but payed political activists, who are trying to enforce foreign interests in Hungary. – Civil society organizations do participate in policy making, this is one of the roles of civil society, one of the classical roles of civil society, to speak up in public matters that affect people’s lives. the rhetorics become important because, foreign-funded wouldn’t necessarily mean a bad thing but with the government’s rhetoric that foreign-funded also means not serving Hungarian interests actually serving someone else’s interests, not Hungarians it becomes a label, it becomes a stigma on these organisations. In September 2015 the refugee crisis reached the borders of Hungary and thousands of asylum seekers appeared at its train stations. The government launched a massive anti-migration propaganda campaign and accused George Soros, and civil society organisations funded by him, of orchestrating and organising the flood of migrants with the purpose of destroying Europe. – We will not let Soros laugh in the end. – They are speeding up the execution of the Soros plan, we have to push back the organisations by any means necessary, and we have to clear them out of the country. – This is a political strategy, They, with the help of political strategist firms, found the perfect enemy who embodies the fears and sentiments of many of the members of the Hungarian public. In 2017 the Hungarian government adopted a new law, which was based on the similar Russian foreign agent law. It required NGOs receiving foreign funding to register as such at a ministry website and put a label on their publications. Several affected organisations rejected to comply and initiated an infringement procedure against Hungary at the European Court of Justice. In 2018 the government adopted the so called Stop Soros law, punishing foreign-funded NGOs which were helping asylum seekers. – Access to justice and due process are fundamental European values and this legislation specifically targets that, saying asylum seekers shouldn’t be helped, because if you help asylum seekers, you face the risk of being thrown in jail. In spite of the continuous attacks, social approval of civil society organisations did not disappear and many people stood up for their cause. However, the attacks had serious negative effects on their daily work. The crackdown on civil society was met with an increasing global resistance from human rights defenders who are now trying to adapt to the new political landscape. – There are NGOs or partner organizations in the country Who say that we can help them, but we cannot cooperate publicly with state institutions and state authorities the cooperation completely froze. – What you could see may be mainly two types of responses. One is to to stand up for yourself and to pick up the struggle and the other is try to distance yourself and remain neutral. – there were even examples after the closure of needle exchange programs that a few activists and NGOs tried to distribute needles on the street from the backpack but after they were left alone by donors and left alone by local and national government, they were not able to continue services. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, most of the non governmental organisations that provided support for the most vulnerable populations of society, were funded by foreign donors. Donor withdrawal and shrinking space of civil society together, results in the closure of the organizations providing these services. One such example is Kyrgyzstan, where donor withdrawal may not result in transition to domestic funding. In Kyrgyzstan, we have a trend now – as soon as the funding diminishes, community-based organizations are the first ones to take the blow. There is a house, which belongs to our organization, where we implement a social support project. In my opinion, people who come to us are from the most vulnerable populations. Those are former prisoners, people who use drugs, people living with HIV. We are registering all people released from prisons into the probation system. We tell people what they need to do for their socialization, how they can learn to live new lives after so many years they spent in prisons. Nobody, apart from us, does it as nobody, apart from us, has the required experience. Besides, nobody, apart from us, can really understand what people feel after they go through all those things. The government is not aware of the issues that people who use drugs have to deal with. People who use drugs are not able to interact with the state directly due to various reasons. Due to the lack of trust, due to the arrogance as they still face stigma and discrimination. NGOs are in fact a link between the government and the drug users. Therefore, if we, NGOs, are taken out of this equation, the linkage will be broken and the consequences will inevitably be bad. As opposed to the politically neutral position of Kyrgyzstan’s authorities with regard to non-governmental organizations, the situation in Russia is completely different. Russian civil society actors are facing physical violence and informal harassment by both state security forces and non-state actors, and the government introduced several laws to silence NGOs. Russia banned certain international donors from the country and introduced the “foreign agent law”, which suffocates NGOs funded from abroad. This particularly affects NGOs delivering HIV prevention services to key affected populations such as people who use drugs, sex workers and men who have sex with men. – Although we as organisation don’t consider ourselves as politically involved organisation, and we don’t consider ourselves in opposition to the government, we just try to do our activities in accordance with our mission, to save the lives of people who use drugs, to provide them with the needed services for HIV prevention, overdose, and try to make sure that they are being treated with dignity and with respect to their rights, nevertheless we have a long history of counteraction with the government. The Andrey Rylkov foundation is the only NGO providing needle and syringe exchange for people who inject drugs in Moscow, a city of 20 million people. In 2012, their website was banned in Russia, because they were citing UNAIDS and WHO information on the effectiveness of methadone substitution treatment which is not allowed in Russia. In 2016, they were put on the foreign agent list, claiming they are conducting foreign funded political activity by advocating for methadone treatment. – It’s like a hammer hanging on your head, you never know when it would fall down. so you always feel yourself under control. You always feel that maybe tomorrow they will fine you for some the violation of this law. The reaction of NGOs are different. I know cases when NGOs decided to close down. and to stop their activities. Other NGOs like ours are always happy to use such opportunity to fight back and to go to the court, because we consider this as the violation of our rights, and we don’t agree with this definition of foreign agent, and we don’t consider ourselves as a traitor but we believe that we work to support the government to stop the HIV epidemic in Russia. The Andrey Rylkov Foundation won the first case against the fine for not registering as a foreign agent, but they had to fundraise to pay the second fine of 12 thousand Dollars, for their so called “Drug Propaganda” If they are unable to collect more funds to pay such future fines, they could be forced to close down. Russia’s reluctance to fund any low threshold HIV prevention services for key affected populations has resulted in the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the region with 1.2 million registered HIV cases. – About 70% of them have experience with injection drug use. so not doing anything with that is like supporting the escalation of the HIV epidemic. In my opinion. – Vulnerable people in Russia are not only subject to state negligence, but are terrorized by non state actors as well. In Saint Petersburg, a fascist group not long ago attacked sex workers with unimaginable cruelty. It was terrifying. Even when he was in court, sitting in the cage, it seemed to me that he would break out. When he marched us out onto the street, we were happy that we were finally somewhere where we could ask for help. Only one neighbor offered to help. She said “Girls, do you need help? I called the police.” The others just mocked us. When we came out onto the street, there were these two policemen who were like, “What’s going on?” We were naked and they were asking what’s going on. As soon as someone mentioned Datsik, they turned around and ran. They just turned around and ran! Several girls tried to get into the police van for safety, but the police officers blocked the doors from the inside and would not let anyone in. So these guys left and another police car came. And they were being all coy – “What’s going on?” Datsik was outside by then. And he was like, “I am escorting these prostitutes to the police station.” And they were like, “Good for you, man.” When we were stuck at the police precinct, Silver Rose brought us food, clothes and underwear. Silver Rose provided lawyers as well. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what would have happened. I want to get one point across. We, too, are human beings. We all have problems. We are in this line of work not because we love sex so much, but because life is hard. If it wasn’t for the support of Silver Rose (a sex-workers’ movement), I would have been alone. We got threatening phone calls. People threatened us openly. People called and introduced themselves as Datsik’s… what was it… brothers-in-arms. They threatened to burn us and maim our children. You know what astonished me? People’s indifference. Another example of the severity of shrinking space for civil society is Poland. For the past 4 years Poland’s rating has been falling in international indexes monitoring political rights and civil liberties. The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, a Warsaw based watchdog organisation, monitors the situation closely and has also been affected by the current policies of the authoritarian government. This government doesn’t like women, and doesn’t like migrants and refugees. Basically any group prone to marginalization is under greater threat, under greater risk that they used to be before 2015. Law and Justice, the conservative party which is now ruling in Poland has targeted migrants, women and also LGBTQ communities. The government gave the signal that now it is allowed to say very unpleasant things and hostile things about minority groups in Poland. Both people and institutions in this field just don’t have the sense of security, don’t have the feeling that for example if there is a verbal or physical attack on them, if the prosecutors and police would support them fully. Unfortunately there already were a few such very unpleasant situations. Organisations headquarters or activists were attacked. On equality marches there were militias of people that don’t accept of people that don’t accept being different. And the police reactions was usually, let’s say not satisfying. The police seems to be a useful and obedient tool in authoritarian regimes. Indolent, when they need to protect vulnerable communities, the police turns to overacting when authorities want to send a clear message to the organisations hesitant to follow the way marked out by the conservative government. A day after one of the the so called “black protests”, gathering crowds of women demanding their rights, ffices of the charity working to protect and empower women including victims of domestic violence, experienced unjustifiable police raids. – In all of our chapters police showed up it was indeed a big surprise. The group was impressive, 8 people, there already were clients in our offices, It was quite unpleasant. We were shown a prosecutors decision about an ongoing investigation against ministry employees related to not fulfilling or exceeding duties related to funding. It really was a shock, that it was in the presence of clients. Later we had to close the office, and apologize to the clients. We were very anxious that there could be a leak that would be damaging to our clients. One of our young lawyers a few days after that informed me that she quits. The Center for Women’s Rights together with a number of other civil society organisations like Political Critique, which is active also in the drug policy field is on a black list of NGOs that can’t count on the state financial support nowadays and had been cut off from the ministerial grants. It also heavily influenced the refugee focused work of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. The only available funds for providing legal and integration aid for migrants staying in Poland was operated by the government on the national level. Those funds were effectively frozen. In our case that meant, that one third of our budget was cut. which eventually led to very significant cuts in financing. Then many people from this department left. Seeing the challenging situation of their colleagues and NGOs advocating for women, refugees, or LGBTQ rights, drug policy and harm reduction focused NGOs have been expecting the worst to come, especially because their areas of focus are perceived as controversial and their work seen by the conservative part of the society as morally dubious. In order to prevent the possible attacks as well as the broader negative changes in the drug law, the Polish Drug Policy Network decided to hide a bit and resign from some of their advocacy activities. We feared that our actions might lead to the harshening of the the drug policy direction in our country even more. Fearing that we retreated from advocacy activities in the parliament, or in the media. All efforts of our organisation turned to changing drug policy on the regional level. In polish regions, cities, but no longer on national level. We went to 13 regions to work based on the Warsaw Declaration document to make guidelines for improvement of the local strategies. When advocacy which addressed the central government is not an option anymore organisations shift to closer cooperation with local authorities. This is also a strategy used by Jump ’93, primarily an association of current or former methadone patients, but now also a harm reduction services provider. – The Last 3-4 years brought bad changes for such organisations but the last year shows that it is beginning to turn around. I mean this escape from harm reduction, escape from different activities around care of those hurt the most. For different groups, like people with a dual diagnosis, It is starting to change, mostly thanks to the cities and local governments, which see certain threat in state policies. Because potential is on the way out. I think cities want to break free and extend their prerogatives, and it’s right. 50% of services in care and treatment remains in the hands of conservative organisations. Old, conservative organisations. The problem is with all new ones that try to be innovative. They are often controversial, often not understood by officials that’s becoming a problem. – In the context of deepening polarization, we also see the rise of new kind of NGOs, far-right or groups very close to governing majority. This is something different from what we observed in Hungary. In Hungary NGOs are presented as scapegoats. In Poland the government has a different strategy. Instead of attacking very particular organisations, they decide to promote those who work closely with them. The current situation is forcing Civil Society organisations not only to think about their safety but also about new ways of continuing their work towards their mission. They also have to reshape their fundraising strategies immediately to be able to sustain their activities. – In fact these equality organisations identify with their mission and mission is their priority. not financial survival, or big growth, but dedication to the mission. A big change is that these organisations really started to think about fundraising from individuals and this is a significant change in the past few years. When talking to organisations we really encourage them to use the donations not just to sustain themselves, but to think of the future, think of sources for self funding, independent of state institutions. And many organisations are doing this right. Some add economic activity, some try paid services, but for most of them most important are individual donors. We are very proud to still have our international donor support. I would make it very clear, that without their help we wouldn’t have made it in the last 4 years. I am aware that there are organisations in Poland smaller organisations, who can not say the same. Civil society organisations in Europe still hope, that the European Union can provide some sort of protection against their own authoritarian governments. – There is a discussion about making European Union funding dependent on respecting the rule of law and other European core values, but also on the European Union, spending money on protecting these values within its borders not just outside of its borders. After 25 years of struggle for human rights protection you might have thought, you achieve certain level and you secured the basics and you can build on that. But in 2015 we discovered that there is no such a thing as secured. basic understanding of the importance of the rule of law and democratic values. This was for many people in the foundation, especially those, who remember working in the communist period, that was sort of a deja-vu, that…. how many times do we have to fight for the very same thing. Václav Havel, the great dissident from the from Czech Republic once said totalitarian system can coexist with private ownership sometimes even with private enterprise and parliamentarian system but it can never coexist with a vibrant civil society. so vibrant civil society is what really makes a difference between an authoritarian and a free society. This film is inspired and a follow up on the assessment “We Fight, We Hide or We Unite: coping strategies amongst resilient harm reduction organizations and community networks in the context of shrinking space for civil society in Eastern Europe and Central Asia” of AFEW International within the Program “Bridging the Gaps: health and rights of key populations”

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