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Georgian civil servants ‘pressured’ to promote foreign agent bill

8 April 2024
After Georgian Dream announced they were bringing back the foreign agent law on 3 April, posters targeting civil society and media figures appeared throughout Tbilisi. Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

The Georgian Government has been accused of using civil servants to deliver messages on social media supporting their controversial draft foreign agent law.

On Thursday and Sunday, iFact, a Georgian investigative outlet, published two reports describing how senior regional officials were forcing staff to share and write comments supporting the bill.

After Georgian Dream officially announced that it was reviving the draft foreign agent law on 3 April, ‘public service employees swiftly took to social media platforms within the hour’, iFact reported.

On Sunday, iFact reported that at least 320 employees of 59 municipalities, municipal councils, and non-commercial legal entities were involved in the campaign.

‘The scheme is as follows: high-ranking officials from City Hall upload a photo on their Facebook page, and employees of the same city hall share from them’, they wrote.

iFact also published screenshots of what they said was a conversation between the employees of Ambrolauri Municipality and Gigi Natmeladze, the adviser to the municipality’s mayor. In the screenshots, Natmeladze appears to encourage employees to comment and react to posts about the ruling party’s draft foreign agent and queer ‘propaganda’ laws, which Georgian Dream submitted to parliament last week.

Natmeladze reportedly told iFact they had ‘incorrect information’ but refused to answer any additional questions.

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Gela Mtivlishvili, the editor of online news site Mtis Ambebi also published screenshots of conversations he had with public servants who claimed to have been instructed to react to and share posts by the ruling party and its associates.

In the screenshots, the employees, whose identities were hidden, told Mtivlishvili they were ‘pressured’ into the scheme.

‘You know, I am caring for an orphan and if they fire me we will remain hungry’, said a public servant to Mtivlishvili.

Georgia’s foreign agent law would label any civil society or media organisation that received at least 20% of its funding from outside Georgia ‘organisations carrying out the interests of a foreign power’. Such organisations would be subject to ‘monitoring’ by the Ministry of Justice every six months, which lawyers have warned could include forcing them to hand over internal communications and confidential sources. Organisations that do not comply would be subject to large fines.

‘False information’ on social media

Georgian Dream’s reintroduction of the foreign agent law has prompted criticism domestically and internationally, with local civil society and opposition groups dubbing the bill the ‘Russian law’ due to its similarity to legislation adopted by Russia used to crush civil society and critical media in the country.

[Read more: Georgia’s foreign agents bill faces international condemnation]

Members of the ruling party, their allies, and pro-government media began sharing a post ‘debunking’ claims that the law was inspired by Russian legislation, that it was anti-Western, and that it would cost Georgia its EU candidacy. Soon after, Facebook began flagging the posts as containing false information.

Batumi Mayor Archil Chikovani’s post about the foreign agent law was flagged as containing false information by Facebook. Image via iFact.

Facebook’s censorship of the post has drawn criticism from senior figures from the ruling party, including Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, who on Monday accused the ‘so-called non-governmental organisations connected to our political opponents’ of censoring Facebook and social media.

Kobakhidze’s statement was echoed by Eka Sepashvili, an MP from the parliamentary majority.

‘[Blocking social media posts] just showed that they [Georgia’s opposition and NGOs] seem to be tied to the Facebook headquarters in spreading this disinformation’, said Sepashvili.

Facebook flagged the posts as false information checked by FactCheck, a platform founded by Georgia’s Reforms Associates.

Tax relief and trips to Germany

As Georgian Dream braces for backlash against its reintroduction of the foreign agent law, the government has proposed several other seemingly more popular initiatives for discussion in parliament.

On Monday, Prime Minister Kobakhidze announced a ₾590 million ($220 million) tax debt relief for over 145,000 people.

Kobakhidze stated that the debt cancellation would cover tax obligations and penalties accumulated before 2021.

‘140,000 of our citizens will be able to actively participate in economic life, something that will benefit economic development’, said Kobakhidze.

Kobakhidze also ‘instructed’ the Ministry of Economy to provide additional direct flights to Dusseldorf and Hamburg, to allow more Georgians to attend the 2024 European Football Championship. Georgia’s qualification for the tournament in March was met with massive celebrations.