Georgian Parliament to Discuss Draft Law on ‘Agents of Foreign Influence’

Опубликовано: 17 Февраль 2023

Georgia Parliament TbilisiGeorgia's Parliament building in Tbilisi. (Photo: Giorgi Balakhadze, Wikimedia, License)

Pro-government lawmakers in Georgia have drafted a bill that would introduce new requirements for organizations that receive funding from abroad, with many experts worried that, if passed, the law could be used to restrict the freedoms of independent media and NGOs.

The proposal is seen as part of a larger trend in the region of cracking down on civil society and independent media through legislation inspired by Russia’s notorious “foreign agent” law.

Representatives of the parliamentary faction People’s Power announced on Tuesday plans to submit a draft bill regulating the activities of foreign-funded organizations. Presented as promoting transparency, the proposed law would require NGOs and media outlets who receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence.”

They would also have to submit annual financial statements, facing fines of roughly US$9,400 and scrutiny from the Ministry of Justice for failure to comply.

This proposal comes in a country once seen as an island of democracy in the former Soviet space, at a time when a number of other countries in the region have passed similar laws, usually leading to strict controls on media and civil society.

"Efforts in promoting transparency are of course important and there are legitimate concerns about sources of funding and financing for NGOs and journalists,” said Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer who has long worked in Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus and a Professor of the Practice of Human Rights at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

“But the way this bill is framed and the way it has operated in other post-Soviet contexts is to chill free speech and to label critical voices, civil society, and journalists in a way that is very similar to darkest days of the Cold War, when a language of us and them, black and white, enemies and traitors became popular."

When contacted by OCCRP, a representative of People’s Power declined to comment.

The draft bill, entitled “On Transparency of Foreign Influence,” would affect all NGOs and media outlets which receive at least 20% of their funding from individuals or legal entities abroad. In Georgia, that includes many of the most influential independent media outlets.

The parliamentary faction which proposed the bill is a relatively new player in Georgian politics. Founded by a group of MPs who formally left the ruling Georgian Dream party in August 2022, People’s Power continues to vote as a bloc with Georgian Dream but voices much harsher criticism of Western policies and institutions than the ruling party typically allows itself. In particular, they famously accused U.S. ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan of attempting to push Georgia into a war with Russia, thereby opening a second front after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Many have suggested that People’s Power in fact expresses views that the ruling Georgian Dream party shares but does not want to state openly. Even the Georgian president Salome Zourabichvili is on record saying that the members of People’s Power "do not look like independent people. It is clear they have not quit the Georgian Dream.”

Since the idea for the proposed law was first floated last year, it has been widely criticized by civil society activists, opposition parties, and Western politicians and organizations. “We are deeply concerned about [the draft legislation] implications for freedom of speech and democracy in Georgia,” said US State Department spokesperson Ned Price at a press briefing on Wednesday. “We believe such a law could potentially undermine Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration.”

Meanwhile, the chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze, has defended his colleagues’ initiative, framing it as a question of transparency. “Ask any citizen and no one can tell you who actually funds this or that media outlet,” Kobakhidze said in a TV interview on Wednesday. “The public should have information about the funding of this or that organization, I don't see a problem with that.”

Similar laws aimed at “foreign agents” have been introduced in other countries in the region.

Adopted in 2012, Russian authorities have used that law to suppress independent voices in an unprecedented crackdown on free speech, especially since launching the war in Ukraine in February 2022.

In 2013-2015, Georgia’s neighbor Azerbaijan passed a series of laws which made it virtually impossible for NGOs to receive foreign funding, effectively crippling civil society. In 2022, the president signed new legislation severely limiting press freedoms through stringent registration procedures and other restrictions.

Hungary passed a similar law in 2017, but later repealed it after the EU Court of Justice ruled in 2020 that it was inconsistent with European law.

In recent months, legislators in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have proposed new media laws influenced by the Russian prototype, giving the government new authorities such as the power to shut down media outlets or control their work during “unordinary events.”

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is already putting unprecedented strain on other post-Soviet neighbors, including Georgia, where there are a number of human rights battles being fought,” Steve Swerdlow told OCCRP.

“But this bill undoubtedly would contribute to the deterioration of the overall climate for human rights and the rule of law in Georgia, which has for so long been distinguished by a robust civil society, a powerful community of journalists, and freedom of speech,” he concluded.