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In Canada, China, India, Israel, Russia and in other countries around the world, governments are cracking down on foreign-funded NGOs operating in their countries. These crackdowns are inevitable and understandable, and in all cases come down to one factor: Governments, whether democratic or dictatorial, don’t like foreign forces interfering in their domestic politics.
The crackdowns typically take the form of beefing up laws and regulations, or creating new ones, to require more disclosure on the activities of NGOs. An exception is China’s proposed Foreign NGO Management Law, now in Second Reading in its legislature, where the Public Security Department of China’s State Council — its cabinet — would assume responsibility for approving the funding and the activities of all NGOs in receipt of foreign funds, to guard against purposes ranging from the political to the religious to the economic. Unlike other countries, China’s NGO law isn’t about disclosure but about censorship and control.
In one country — the United States — there is no talk of crackdowns, not because the U.S. is blasé about foreign-funded NGOs but because it has long had strict laws on the books.
In the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) after he realized that the American Nazis — then a potent force in U.S. politics — were being funded by Hitler’s Germany.
FARA’s original pre-World War II purpose — to expose “German propaganda agents” – has since morphed to become a fixture of U.S. policy, used to require public disclosure in everything from Communist propaganda during the Cold War to three Canadian films dealing with acid rain and nuclear war, including the Academy Award winning documentary, “If you love this planet.”
When the government’s use of FARA was challenged as censorship and a limitation of free speech, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, ruling in 1987 that it saw value in public disclosure that spotlighted material from those who might have an alien agenda, “so that the government and the people of the United States may be informed of the identity of such persons and may appraise their statements and actions in the light of their associations and activities.”
FARA’s disclosure requirement applies to any foreign monies employed “to influence U.S. public opinion, policy, and laws.” Russia’s 2012 law on “foreign agents,” based on FARA, similarly demands disclosure when foreign money is used in the “shaping of public opinion” and in “influencing decision-making by state bodies in order to change state policy.”
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