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Malta’s NGOs Beware! VO Commissioner’s Repubblika Warning Could Be Used To Ban Any Government Critics

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Any Maltese that criticises the government could find itself banned and prevented from collecting donations, according to a close reading of the threats being made against Repubblika by the Commissioner of Voluntary Organisations.

The civil society group Repubblika received a letter on 26th February from the CVO informing it that it was in breach of the Voluntary Organisations Act – the law that governs the operations of all voluntary organisations in Malta. If the organisation is delisted, fundraising will become a criminal offence.

According to the Commissioner, the fact that some of Repubblika’s members have published opinion pieces in the local press that are of a political nature, in and of itself proves that the NGO is politically-affiliated.

The publications cited by the Commissioner as proof include two opinion pieces by Repubblika council member Manuel Delia, two pieces by president Alessandra Dee Crespo and two articles by council member Vicki Ann Cremona, as well as an article reporting that the NGO had made submissions to the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

According to the law, “an organisation shall not be considered to be a voluntary organisation if it is a political party, has political purposes or is controlled by, related or affiliated to a political party”.

But the same law goes on to say that “nothing in this article shall hinder an organisation with political purposes from establishing an organisation which is not a political organisation as defined in this act”.

What the opinion pieces cited by the Commissioner have in common is that they are all critical of the government and, to a lesser extent, the Labour Party, but they can hardly be considered to constitute proof of Repubblika’s direct political affiliation. If anything, the common theme in the pieces is that Maltese society should demand better from its politicians and that it should unite to end the duopoly enjoyed by the two main parties.

Accepting the logic that any NGO that publicly criticises the government is politically affiliated means accepting a situation where the CVO can ban any civil society group that does so, with very little, if any, due process. This would set a dangerous precedent and allow the CVO to unilaterally remove any NGO’s legal status and exposing its members to more serious repercussions by making the organisation’s activities – such as fundraising – illegal.

In his letter, the Commissioner also makes another point, this time about Repubblika’s finances. He suggests that Repubblika is “materially prejudicing the achievement of the purposes and objectives of the organisation” through the way it was administering its finances. The Commissioner said he was also “concerned” that the organisation was paying “exorbitant rates” for services which, he claimed, could be obtained cheaper. This, he added, raised questions about whether the NGO was justified in collecting money from private entities and individuals.

Repubblika’s accounts were audited by their external auditors Mint Finance which gave the NGO’s finances a clean bill of health. A second audit by audit firm RSM, which was commissioned by the Commissioner over and above Repubblika’s regular annual audit, also found no issues with its finances. A look through the latest accounts submitted shows that the NGO had expenses amounting to just €32,041 for the year ending 2019.

Administrative expenses made up roughly half of the NGO’s spend at €16,329. It spent a further €8,129 on events, €4,710 on advertising, €1,140 on donations and a combined €1,733 on printing and stationery, depreciation and amortisation, auditor remuneration, miscellaneous expenses, administration and management fees and bank charges.

If one analyses the biggest expense – administration –  it is difficult to interpret €16,329, which amounts to less than €1,400 per month, as an obscene figure worthy of discipline by the VOC. After all, it amounts to a full-time salary which is what an NGO with Repubblika’s profile could be expected to pay for administration over the course of a year.

The Commissioner goes on to suggest that, from a legal perspective, Repubblika does not qualify as a voluntary organisation and should register itself as a private interest foundation, one of two main types of foundations that can exist.

A private interest foundation, which is set up for the private benefit of named persons, and a purpose foundation which is set up to achieve a specific purpose. While purpose foundations are able to register themselves with the CVO, private foundations are not.

Speaking to Lovin Malta, Repubblika president Robert Aquilina explained that when Repubblika was being set up, a decision was taken to register it as an association of member, or voluntary organisation. He explained that there were three types of entities that can register themselves with the CVO: trusts, foundations and associations of persons. He said that in Repubblika’s case, it was determined that an association was the option that made most sense given the group’s intention to have as many members as possible.

He added that it was “legal heresy” to say that Repubblika was a foundation, while stressing that it was never Repubblika’s intention to be one and that the Commissioner was going beyond his remit in questioning whether the organisation should be a foundation.

Aquilina also pointed out that its statute had not changed since it was first approved by the CVO and questioned why it was that the Commissioner had only decided to raise the issue related to its statute now.

Lovin Malta sent questions to the CVO asking the Commissioner to explain and clarify his position four days ago, but no answer had been received by the time of writing. A CVO employee told Lovin Malta yesterday that the Commissioner was still “awaiting clearance” to be able to reply. They could not say who the Commissioner was awaiting clearance from.

Meanwhile, Repubblika has reacted to the Commissioner’s letter by accusing him, and by extension the government, of attempting to silence it. Repubblika filed a judicial protest on Tuesday calling on the Commissioner to withdraw his “illegal and unconstitutional” threat.

In today’s Times of Malta, Delia, Dee Crespo, and Cremona penned an article saying they would not be silenced and would continue to write opinion pieces that criticise the Prime Minister and his government, despite the threats by the VOC.

Do you agree with the Commissioner’s reasoning?

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