What about your money?
What is wrong with new NGO income declaration amendments
Fighting corruption has been the hot issue in the recent years, discussed by just everyone: from ordinary citizens to corrupt officials. The slogan, however, was not always used for the stated purpose, and the good intentions sometimes covered private interests. The new NGO e-declaration requirements put this "fight" on a new level. On March 23, the Parliament enacted amendments to the law on the simplification of income declaration for ATO servicemen sponsored by President Petro Poroshenko. Their stated goal is to exempt soldiers from filing mandatory electronic declarations, since they may experience problems with that for objective reasons: the ATO, as well as the lack of computers and Internet safety concerns.
In parallel, Ukrainian politicians held true to their traditions. Under the guise of the muchneeded initiative that makes life easier for those serving in the ATO, MPs added amendments that make filing declarations compulsory for anticorruption civic activists and members of community boards in banks and companies. What makes it even worse is that MPs believe that those providing services to anticorruption NGOs, ranging from rent to cleaning, should also file declarations. Civic activists interpret this as revenge of the President and MPs. The amendments to the bill were initiated by the People's Front MP and former civic activist Tetyana Chornovol.
"For an honest fighter against corruption, honest media director, or an honest member of a community board at a public agency, filing an e-declaration is not a problem. To the contrary, they can be proud of following the main anti-corruption principle: transparency. I do not understand why our ‘most honest in the world’ corruption fighters and fathers of e-declarations react so hysterically," Chornovol wrote in her Facebook account.
Initially, her amendments to Bill 6172 proposed to make media directors file their e-declarations, among others, but following the outrage of media representatives this clause was left out.
At the first glance, such parliamentary initiatives can be justified: Art. 67 of the Constitution mandates that all citizens submit their declarations of property and income to tax authorities annually. What is wrong with the proposed changes to the law on preventing corruption? Here lies perhaps the main intricacy of Chornovol’s amendments.
The bill defines corruption as the use of power and office to obtain improper benefits or advantage. Official power, as defined by law, is vested in the President, ministers, MPs, officials of different levels, judges, members of the Central Election Commission, law enforcers, etc. By enacting the above amendments, MPs put anticorruption activists in the status of public officials, i.e., persons authorized to perform state functions.
The second intricacy is that one of the objectives of the anti-corruption legislation is to control officials whose salaries are paid by the taxpayers. That is, the public was provided with a tool to monitor the financial status of MPs, mayors, judges and others, and to turn to competent authorities, such as the National Agency on Corruption Prevention, National Anti-Corruption Bureau and the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, in case of any discrepancies between their income and property.
The situation is different with the public declaration of the income received by anticorruption activists. Investigative journalists and
BY ENACTING THE NEW E-DECLARATION AMENDMENTS FOR ACTIVISTS AND INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISTS, MPs PUT THEM IN THE STATUS OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS, I.E., PERSONS AUTHORIZED TO PERFORM STATE FUNCTIONS
activists that design draft laws work for NGOs that are funded not from the Ukrainian budget, but from grant programs. NGO managers regularly report on the use of funds to their donors. However, this does not happen publically. At the same time, MPs and the President want activists not so much to report on the use of funds, as to make their incomes public. This initiative is presented by them as the fight against corruption. No one ever explained what corruption risks the work of civic activists carries. The public perceived these initiatives as an attempt of crackdown and revenge. Ukraine’s civic institutions and international partners alike criticized the adopted amendments.
"The law on electronic declaration will greatly complicate the work of journalists, especially those involved in investigations. It is no secret that corruption investigations are conducted by journalists working not for traditional media owned by oligarchs, but for media organizations registered as NGOs. These amendments are therefore nothing else but pressure on journalists and interference with their work," Iryna Zemlyana, media expert at the Institute of Mass
Information, commented on the situation to The Ukrainian Week.
"The new requirements are aimed at protecting politicians, dissatisfied with public control and give them the opportunity to take revenge on those who participate in anti-corruption investigations. Moreover, the law clearly violates the Council of Europe standards prohibiting arbitrary and discriminatory interference in the independent functioning of civil society,” Marc Behrendt, Director for Europe and Eurasia programs at Freedom House, reacted to Chornovol’s amendments.
"E-declarations for senior public servants is a strong step forward for reforms in Ukraine. Members of civil society play vital role for transparency; targeting them is a step backwards,” the US Embassy commented.
"Changes to the law on e-declarations are a step back, not forwards, and should be reconsidered," Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy Johannes Hahn stated bluntly.
A closer look at the amendments proposed by the MPs reveals that Chornovol’s initiative is not new. In the fall of 2016, MPs already tried to put the e-declarations system to their service. Then, the Parliament was considering Bill 5318 introduced by Yuriy Derevyanko, currently unaligned MP and previously member of Samopomich who left the faction amidst a scandal around at- tempts to split up the party. This bill, too, proposed to institute mandatory electronic declaration for NGOs and contractors receiving funds from “international assistance programs aimed at preventing and combating corruption.” Those legislative initiatives were even compared to the "campaign against foreign agents" in Russia.
Six months ago, the Parliament voted the bill down. Today, it has emerged again, introduced by another MP and under a different name. This, in turn, gives reason to doubt that the Presidential Administration was unaware of the preparation of such legislative changes, especially taking into account the talking points for MPs issued by the PA that were subsequently leaked to the Ukrainian media. The President is trying to do the splits. During his meeting with activists to discuss the proposed amendments, he said that he must sign the bill into law because otherwise it would jeopardize 160,000 Ukrainian soldiers. However, something needs to be done with the controversial amendments. Finally, corruption fighters were promised that the issue would be dealt with through other "urgent" legislative initiatives. Such promises were received with skepticism. It remains to hope that the guarantor of the Constitution with his MPs will keep his word, paying heed if not to the civic activists, then to the Western partners.
Damage control. Amidst harsh criticism of the e-declaration amendments, President Poroshenko meets with representatives of NGOs on March 27 to discuss possible response. He suggests setting up a working group to prepare new changes. That leaves activists skeptical