EU court rejects NGO Monitor petition to release details on Israeli rights groups
The right-wing group, which tracks the activity of left-wing organizations in Israel, has been trying to obtain the documents for 10 years; court throws out suit, says information may be used to harm the NGOs.
After four years of legal battles, the European Court of Human Rights rejected the request of the right-wing organization NGO Monitor to receive documents regarding the funding of 16 projects of human rights organizations in Israel.
NGO Monitor is a right-wing group that keeps track of the activity of left-wing non-profit organizations, in order to point out "foreign intervention" in Israeli affairs. Over the years, the group has issued reports containing information and analysis of the activity of these Israeli organizations.
The president of the NGO is Prof. Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University. In 2008, Steinberg turned to the European Union with a request to receive, as mandated by the European Freedom of Information Act, over 200 documents regarding 116 projects that the EU funded in the years 2006 to 2008, as part of two EU programs to promote peace in the Middle East and human rights in general.
Steinberg wanted to receive the organizations' proposals, the EU's assessment forms, the considerations as to which projects to approve, as well as the reports submitted to the EU by the organizations on what they did with the money. After a long correspondence, the EU decided not to hand over most of the information, explaining that the Middle East is an unstable region, and therefore such information may pose a danger to human rights groups. Moreover, the EU said that there is a fear that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and in Gaza will discontinue joint activity with Israeli organizations.
In 2010 Steinberg petitioned the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, which is authorized to discuss issues of freedom of information, with a request to overturn the EU decision. At the end of last month, the court decided to accept all the committee's reasons for not providing the information, and to require Steinberg to pay the costs of the case.
Steinberg condemned the decision, claiming that the EU must have something to hide if they won't release the information.
"For over 10 years the EU has been keeping the information regarding funding of NGOs in complete secrecy. Their explanation is public security and commercial interests. My conclusion is that they have something to hide. In addition to a violation of basic principles of government transparency, the secret funding is trying to manipulate the democratic process in Israel. We will continue to seek the relevant documents in order to provide the missing transparency."
Michael Sfard, a lawyer who specializes in petition by human rights organizations, told Haaretz: "Prof. Steinberg invents demons and then chases them. On the way, he convinces the Europeans that the fears for the welfare of Israeli democracy are justified. All the data about the donations of foreign countries to Israeli human rights organizations are published on the Web sites of the organizations, as required by law."