NGOs Attack 'Draconian' Funding Rule

NGOs Attack 'Draconian' Funding Rule

Financial Times (UK)
By John Aglionby in Jakarta

Non-governmental organisations in Indonesia are threatening to resist a new rule requiring state approval of foreign funding.

They argue that the interior ministry regulation revives the authoritarianism of the Suharto era, which ended in 1998.

Activists fear that officials could use the regulation, which is based on a 1985 law, as the precursor to legislation that would roll back hard-won freedoms.

Many Jakarta-based foreign donors believe "the new regulation is retrograde" and "draconian". One described it as "the most worrying development [in terms of political freedom] since martial law was imposed in Aceh in 2003".

Gede Suratha, the interior ministry's director of political culture development, said the government's intention was to clarify the 1985 law, which allows organisations that receive foreign funding without government permission to be suspended.

"The problem is we don't know which foreign organisations are funding Indonesian organisations or how much money the latter are receiving," he said. "We want to make sure foreigners are not seeking to undermine national security or development."

He named the "Middle East" and USAID, the US government's aid agency, as examples of funding sources that were hard to track.

The regulation was approved in August after minimal public consultation, according to donors and NGOs but was only widely disseminated this month.

It requires NGOs to register with the government, seek interior ministry approval for foreign funding, pay tax on the funds and publicise foreign-funded activities through the media.

Eryanto Nugroho, of the Indonesian Centre for Law and Policy Studies, said civil society groups acknowledged the need to regulate the sector but said this was the wrong approach.

"It's rooted in a different era and unless the root is pulled out, more shoots might germinate," he said. "We have to reject it because we don't know where it might lead."

Mr Eryanto said officials' desire to use the regulation to oversee charitable foundations, which are governed by separate legal provisions and are tax-exempt, was a worrying example of creeping authoritarianism.

NGOs are also suspicious of officials' motives because both the interior and justice ministries are drafting new laws on the treatment of mass organisations.

Leaders of several prominent NGOs said they intended to meet in the next fortnight to plan a resistance campaign.

Foreign donors are required to register with the government, as they were during Suharto's regime. However, he never forced NGOs to report their foreign funding sources nor to seek approval for them.

Mr Suratha said his department has been working on regulating foreign funding since 2000.

"It's just taken a long time because it hasn't been a priority," he said.

One donor described the regulation as "clearly a control mechanism". Several others said the regulation appeared to be focused on restricting foreign funding of NGOs wanting to monitor next year's legislative and presidential elections.