Hands off civil society, Govt told

More voices have come out in defence of civil society after the government, through the Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC), issued a directive for civil society organisations to reveal detailed information about its donors and board members.

These are some of the many requirements requested by the FIC for the mandatory registration of non-profit organisations and churches with the centre.

The FIC says this information is necessary to combat money laundering, terrorism financing, and other illicit activities.

Popular Democratic Movement (PDM) parliamentarian Maximalliant Katjimune says this move is not only an attack on civil society, but on the country’s democracy. “We totally reject this attempt by the government to stifle the work of civil societies,” he says.

Katjimune says civil society plays a crucial role in holding the government to account and promoting transparency, stressing that it should not hinder civil societies from executing this mandate.

Under the new directive, the FIC has the authority to request information related to civil society organisations.

This includes details about their membership and sources of financial support, including donations exceeding a minimum of N$5 000.

Legal Assistance Centre director Toni Hancox says this decision offends the rights to privacy and freedom of choice.

She says democracy requires an open civil society which is free to challenge government policies and to speak on behalf of the people.

Any attempt to close this space is a threat to democracy, Hancox says.

“Civil society is already held accountable by its donors and beneficiaries. For the most part they are already required to register with different institutions, for example, trusts must register with the Master of the High Court, Section 21 companies are registered under the companies’ legislation.

“If these institutions are functioning as they should, there is no need for further oversight,” she says. Hancox says the new trust amendments require trustees to obtain police clearance certificates, and the government wants non-governmental organisations to be registered.

“This does not bode well for a free democracy,” she says.

The FIC is further empowered to enter the premises of civil society organisations for inspection, demand documents, access secure storage facilities such as strong rooms and safes, and to utilise any computer systems or equipment found on the premises.

Additionally, the FIC is vested with the ability to scrutinise, extract information from, or make copies of any documents it encounters, and it may seize any pertinent documents obtained during its investigations.

Furthermore, the FIC is authorised to evaluate the suitability and propriety of individuals managing these organisations and set forth governance standards for their operation. The FIC can also issue directives that these organisations must adhere to, and in certain cases, it has the authority to suspend the operations of a civil society organisation.

Eben de Klerk from the Economic Policy Research Association (Epra) says failure to comply with FIC rules may result in one or more penalties, each ranging from a fine of N$10 million or 10 years’ imprisonment, or both, to a fine of N$100 million or 30 years’ imprisonment, or both.

He says democracy is under threat if civil society is not free.

“If this is indeed the case, Namibia should strongly condemn such demands and refuse to adhere to the same. These laws will in any event be unconstitutional, and our courts will rule as such, despite the external pressure,” he says.

He says Epra is in the process of consulting legal counsel to challenge the constitutionality of the new regulations.

De Klerk says as per the Epra constitution, the organisation will not divulge the details of its members and supporters to the government.

“To be clear, we are not against any effort by the government to curtail crime.

“But we cannot support such efforts if they are unconstitutional and pose a substantial threat to our free democracy.”

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