Civil society group Repubblika has been accused of breaching NGO law and of instigating "political propaganda" by the Commission of Voluntary Organisations, which threatened it with legal action if it did not amend its statute.
The NGO, however, reacted forcefully to those claims, denouncing the letter as an attempt to silence it and warning the commission to expect "the strongest possible resistance" to any attempt to take the matter further.
“We consider your letter to be a blatant attempt at silencing us. You single us out because we dare to raise our voice against the manner in which the country is being governed.
"This is not merely our right. It is our duty as a civil society organisation. In this context, you will be met with the strongest possible resistance on our part against any action you take if you attempt to take this matter further,” Repubblika president Robert Aquilina said in his reply letter.
What is Repubblika accused of?
The Office of the Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations, through its lawyer Maria Scicluna Criminale, accused Repubblika of acting in breach of the law and its statute when it came to funding and the sources it uses to fund its activities.
It questioned whether the organisation was paying exorbitant rates and expenses out of its funds “when such purposes and objective could be obtained by other means”.
It also claimed that Repubblika had “a strong element of private interest in the running of operations” and that it was being run as a foundation rather than a voluntary organisation, because of certain guarantees and securities provided by members for the running of its operations.
“It is unequivocal that the organisation does not qualify as a voluntary organisation but as a private interest foundation... and therefore it is in breach of the Voluntary Organisations Act,” Scicluna Criminale wrote in her letter to Repubblika.
The office further accused Repubblika of breaching the Act by being “highly involved in political matters” and was “instigating a political propaganda and publicity”.
“The organisation should be aware that in order to qualify as a voluntary organisation it shall not be politically affiliated or related in any other manner whatsoever and shall be independent from government involvement,” Scicluna Criminale wrote as she called on Repubblika to amend its statute, to avoid further legal proceedings.
How have Repubblika replied?
But in a strongly-worded reply, Aquilina countered that its fundraising methods “are entirely normal and certainly not carried out in any manner that is in breach of the law”.
He said that Scicluna Criminale had examined its statute prior to the organisation's foundation in January 2019 and had not noted anything wrong at the time.
“Nothing has changed since then except for, apparently, your determination to use an interpretation that is stretched beyond snapping point in an attempt to suppress us in the performance of our democratic duty,” Aquilina wrote.
Aquilina also said the Commission's auditor had already examined the NGO's accounts almost a year ago and Repubblika was not informed that anything wrong had been found. Guarantees and similar instruments intended to facilitate the acquisition of funding in a proper and transparent manner and in full compliance with all laws, he added.
The NGO's president refuted claims that Repubblika was in breach of the law because of “political activities”.
“This assertion is entirely gratuitous and unfounded in fact and at law. To be clear: Repubblika is not a political party, it is not controlled by a political party and it does not militate in favour of a political party,” he wrote.
He added: “Repubblika is made up of people who have opinions they are willing to express. If as a result this causes displeasure to people in political authority, this is the latter’s problem. Such an activity is not a crime or a breach of any law, neither that governing civil society organisations nor any other. On the contrary, the activity of expressing oneself freely about political matters is a fundamental human right and it is your duty as a state official to ensure that it is protected to the fullest extent.
“Instead you seek to suppress it. It is a function of democratic life for civil society organisations to call out wrongdoing in government conduct and to do so freely. Any law that is written or applied with the purpose of. or used to suppress that function is unconstitutional and in breach of the fundamental human rights of anyone who functions within and through such organisations.”
He stressed that criticising the government is not a function reserved to the political party in opposition, and attributing partisan political motivation to anyone else who dares gainsay the government “is unacceptable and nothing short of an attack on freedom of association and freedom of expression”.
He called on the Commission to revise its “abusive and unacceptable” position and warned that it will be keeping international human rights bodies abreast “with the manner in which the government and its agents fail to uphold democratic principles”.
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