The Bulgarian government recently resigned amidst protests against high electricity prices, low living standards, and pervasive political corruption. During the government’s last days in office, a group of MPs introduced amendments to existing anti-corruption legislation that would have severely threatened civil society.
The proposed amendments were introduced to modify the existing Law for Publicity of the Property of People in High Government Positions. The changes would have required Board members of NGOs to submit annual declarations of their assets and income, as well as similar information for their relatives, which would be subsequently be made public online. This obligation previously only applied to senior government officials.
While the draft proposal was introduced with the intent of promoting greater transparency in public funding, the proposal would have a detrimental impact for civil society. The process of developing the legislation did not comply with standard consultation procedures, and the text of the amendments were never made public, a requirement under Bulgarian law. Substantively, the legislation’s requirement for board members to disclose their personal property and prohibitively high fines for failure to do so would affect over 10,000 NGOs, many of whom are small local organizations whose Board members serve on a voluntary basis.
The legislation additionally violated international and regional best practices. Under Principle 7 of the Council of Europe recommendations, NGOs with legal personality are entitled to equal treatment by law as other legal entities. The proposed legislation, however, did not require the same declaration of assets for private companies, thereby imposing a requirement for the civil society sector that does not exist for the private sector. Furthermore, the proposal did not abide by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which stipulates that everyone has the right to respect for his/her private and family life, home, and correspondence.
To address the adverse effects of the pending legislation, the Bulgarian Center for Not-for-Profit Law (BCNL) mobilized local NGOs to send appeals to the Chairperson of Parliament to halt the parliamentary discussions. The appeals were also submitted to the President, who could veto the legislation if adopted. BCNL, along with the Access to Information Program, the Civic Participation Forum, and the Bulgarian Donors’ Forum also launched a media campaign to raise public awareness on civil society objections to the draft legislation. As a result of the targeted civil society efforts, the requirement for NGO Board members to submit public declarations on their property was withdrawn from the legislation.