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Foreign agent law to be submitted to Georgian Parliament

15 February 2023

A bill that would label media and civil society organisations that receive money from abroad ‘agents of foreign influence’ is to be submitted to the Georgian parliament, leading to fears of a crackdown similar to that in Russia.

The bill is being submitted by People's Power, a group of pro-government MPs who formally left the ruling Georgian Dream party — with the party’s support — to ‘speak openly’ about a supposed Western conspiracy to drag Georgia into war with Russia.

Announcing the move on Tuesday, the group stated that the draft was based on ‘the principles of openness and transparency’.

The draft law is similar to the foreign agent law first adopted by Russia in 2012; legislation that has been widely used to stifle media freedom and dissent. 

Critics have warned it could lead to similar repressions in Georgia, with MEP Andreus Kubilus telling OC Media its adoption would jeopardise the country’s bid for EU membership.

Georgia’s failure to secure EU candidate status in June 2022 led to some of the largest anti-government protests in recent memory. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

A copy of the draft law obtained by OC Media reveals that it would affect any broadcaster, newspaper, or Georgian-language online media platform operating in the country, as well as any organisation registered in Georgia as a non-governmental organisation. Any such organisation which received over 20% of its income from a ‘foreign power’ would be forced to register on a ‘Foreign Influence Agents Registry’, or face fines of up to ₾25,000 ($9,400).

The draft defines a ‘foreign power’ as: 

  • A foreign government;
  • A person who is not a citizen of Georgia;
  • A legal entity or any kind of organisation not established in Georgia according to Georgian law;
  • An organisation established according to international law, such as the United Nations or World Health Organisation.

Those deemed agents of foreign influence will be obliged to submit annual income declarations.

The draft law would also authorise the Ministry of Justice of Georgia to investigate and obtain documents from organisations they believe to be agents of foreign influence.

The law would likely apply to a majority of non-governmental organisations active in Georgia, as well as a large portion of the media, including OC Media.

People's Power told OC Media that they planned to submit the draft to parliament at the next bureau session. The group also plans to reveal another bill in the coming days which would ensure ‘the adoption of preventive measures against lies and profanity in the media space’.

Georgian Dream itself has not yet clarified their position on the draft law, and the party did not respond to a request for comment.

However, several of the party’s MPs have spoken in favour of the draft. Mikheil Sarjveladze told journalists said he saw nothing wrong with it, while Irakli Kadagishvili responded to ‘there should be transparency everywhere and in everything’.

A threat to Georgia’s EU aspirations

The draft law has been widely condemned in Georgian civil society, as well as abroad.

Andrius Kubilius, a member of the EU Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and a former prime minister of Lithuania, warned the proposal would ‘negatively affect [Georgia’s] prospects of starting the EU membership negotiations soon’.

Andrius Kubilius. Photo: EU Parliament.

The EU granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova while declining to do so for Georgia following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Georgia was instead given a list of institutional reforms they must carry out before their application could be reexamined, including relating to freedom of the press.

Kubilius also pointed out that the Georgian Government themselves received foreign funding. 

‘Does this initiative mean that Georgian authorities will not want the EU financial support for its civil society, which is so vibrant in Georgia? But what about the Georgian authorities receiving the EU support and funds themselves, will they also declare they are foreign agents?’ he said.

Kubilius concluded that he hoped the draft law would be immediately withdrawn.

IDFI, a Tbilisi-based watchdog, also raised concerns that even debating such a law in parliament could risk derailing Georgia’s EU aspirations, calling the draft ‘incompatible with the EU legal system and values’. 

A similar law adopted by Hungary in 2017 was ruled illegal by the Court of Justice of the European Union in 2020.

They pointed out the law would directly contradict the EU’s requirement that Georgia ‘ensure the involvement of civil society in decision-making processes’.

The Georgian Institute of Politics, a think-tank, also warned that if the law was adopted, it would represent a ‘radical departure from the European integration process of Georgia’. They added it would have a negative impact on financial assistance to Georgia from European institutions.

Natia Kapanadze, the director of Media Ombudsman, a local media watchdog, told OC Media the draft ‘represents the intimidation of people independent of the government’.

She said it was widely believed that the draft law was created by the ruling Georgian Dream party.

‘The naming of organisations as “agents” means that the government is more afraid of people and NGOs that it can’t control than we imagined until now’, she added.

 ‘Very similar to the Russian model’

The authors of the draft law have claimed it was based on Western examples including the US’s FARA law. FARA requires individuals and organisations lobbying the US government to disclose any foreign funding.

However, almost identical rhetoric was used by Russian officials, including Russian MP Aleksandr Sidyakin, one of the authors of the Russian foreign agent law, when pushing through their legislation.

Andreus Kubilius also compared the move to Russia’s foreign agent law, ‘something so bad, that Russia implements to crack down on dissent and critical voices.’ 

‘We all know how it ends for Russians’, he said.

Following its initial adoption over a decade ago, Russia’s foreign agent law has evolved to become far stricter, severely limiting the ability of any voices critical of the government to operate there. 

One Russian activist now living in Georgia warned that Georgia risked following in Russia’s footsteps.

The activist spoke with OC Media on condition of anonymity, fearing possible reprisals from the Georgian authorities.

They said the Georgian government, as in Russia, could use such a law to ‘identify undesirable persons and mark them with the status of a foreign agent’. 

They warned of the stigmatisation that the law could lead to, and that it would ‘strip such people and organisations of their rights, they will be less cooperated with, they will be treated as Foreign Agents.’

They said that in Russia, those deemed foreign agents ‘cannot hold positions in government, they cannot receive any state assistance in the form of grants; benefits. They cannot participate in election campaigns […] They cannot work with minors’.’

‘This is a tool of repression that the executive branch can get as a result of the adoption of such a law’, the activist said.

Natia Kapanadze also warned that while the current draft law only required registration by ‘agents of foreign influence’, future amendments could go much further, as in Russia. She said that the current draft was ‘very similar to the Russian model’.

‘At first glance, it becomes clear that Russia, a country that is very far from democracy, has the [same] mechanism to control the media and the non-governmental sector’, she said.

Read in Azerbaijani on Mikroskop Media and AbzasMedia.
Read in Armenian on CivilNet
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