If you want to understand why 79 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), with disparate and sometimes conflicting missions, have united against the new laws governing their fundraising activities, don’t be misled by how these NGOs have summed up the laws. They say the new rules will strangle them with red tape. True, but it’s worse than that.
NGOs are now treated as though they were out on bail, not because they are charged with a crime (fraudulent collection, misuse of funds or money laundering) but because they might commit one.
For you just never know what they might get up to, the assorted volunteers loitering with intent on behalf of Dar tal-Providenza, the various Salesian organisations, the National Pensioners Association, the Richmond Foundation, Puttinu Cares, the Society of Radiographers, the Malta Beekeepers’ Association, the Grupp tal-Armar 6 ta’ Diċembru, the Women’s Rights Foundation, the LifeNetwork Foundation, Aditus Foundation and the Jesuit Refugee Service Malta.
The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global anti-money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, is the first to say that monitoring of NGOs should not end up obstructing their work. The new fundraising laws impose the draconian one-size-fits-all approach that FATF (and other institutions) warn against.
The new rules demand that — like people out on bail who need to sign in at the local police station — NGOs sign up every three months to be allowed to collect money. If you’re on bail you need to surrender your identification papers; in extreme cases, you might even be tagged. Here, tagging is routine, with a new tag (complete with passport photo and testimonials) required every six months for any volunteer who collects money for an NGO.
If you’re out on bail you need to keep clear of airports and the seashore. If you’re collecting money during a feast or protest, you need to be at least 30 metres apart from every one of your collector colleagues. The purpose of this rule is mysterious but it’s clear that it legitimises official surveillance of public gatherings. What used to be surreptitious is now warranted by law.
The rules also enforce a financial chastity belt. Money can only be collected in official locked containers, whose key remains in official keeping, and which are opened under official supervision.
Think these laws are simply about controlling the NGOs? If NGOs slip you an envelope for a donation under the door, it will be numbered. If you donate, your donation will be known. If you don’t donate, that too can be noted. You might not care whether Puttinu Cares. But what if the Marigold Foundation sends you an envelope and your numbered envelope is unreturned?
The new laws also govern how NGOs may communicate with you. NGO literature may not exaggerate or risk causing fear or distress to the public; it may not be ambiguous.
Strictly enforced, this rule would suppress the New Testament. Out go the warnings that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for the rich to enter heaven (exaggeration); that the Word was with God and was God (ambiguity); that none can escape eternal judgement (likelihood to cause fear); and that asylum seekers and prison inmates are our brothers (distress to the public).
No text can survive the beady eye determined to catch exaggeration or ambiguity; urgent social causes are often motivated by a sense of alarm or danger. But since it would be impractical to strike down all texts that violate these criteria, the decision to object to one text but not another will boil down to the personal preferences of successive Commissioners for Voluntary Organisations.
It’s a Commissioner who’ll decide that “Smoking Kills” is acceptable but not “Corruption Kills”. One Commissioner could decide that “Prohibiting Abortion Is Against Human Rights” is exaggeration; the immediate successor could decide the same of “Abortion Is Murder”.
Apart from the institutionalised arbitrariness, there’s the double standard. Politicians are permitted to exaggerate, alarm their listeners and cause distress to their adversaries’ supporters; their promises are full of studied ambiguity. Religions are also permitted wide latitude, and as for columnists just ask the long-suffering Eddy Privitera about me.
In short, these new fundraising rules don’t just impinge on freedom of expression. They consolidate the inequality between the powerful and civil society. Those with power can count on freedom of expression; organised civil society’s latitude of expression is policed.
Can’t the Commissioner simply be ignored? No, since commissioners have the power to cut NGOs off from government funds and delist them. NGOs now get to be helpfully reminded of this muscle several times a year.
The new laws, therefore, will either see many NGOs adapt their message to the prevailing orthodoxy. Or else they will become “maladapted” and face extinction. The NGO landscape risks having fewer voices that significantly challenge the status quo.
Hence why it’s misleading for NGOs to complain that the new laws “obstruct” them. They do far more than that. They overturn the very notion of power that’s at the heart of the governance of the voluntary sector.
In democracies, volunteer organisations are assumed to be an essential aspect of the empowerment of civil society. With Malta’s new approach, however, power is about control and surveillance. The Commissioner is no longer the champion of volunteerism, ready to enable it. He’s the head of an intelligence agency.
These new rules aren’t the red tape of a mollycoddling Nanny State. They’re the fundamental expression of — as far as NGOs go — a Police State.