Thousands of Georgians this week have taken to the streets to protest a controversial proposed “foreign agent” law. The bill was passed on Tuesday in a first hearing with 76 MPs of the ruling Georgian Dream party voting in favor. Following the vote, police used water cannons, tear gas and what appeared to be pepper spray in order to disperse the demonstrators.
More than 60 protestors have been detained during the protests including the co-founder of critical TV-channel Formula and the leader of the opposition party Girchi, Zurab Girchi Japaridze. The president of Georgia expressed her support for the protestors and promised to veto the bill.
The IPI global network strongly condemns the proposed legislation. IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said last month: “IPI is deeply alarmed that Georgian lawmakers are considering taking a page out of Russia’s authoritarian playbook by introducing so-called ‘foreign agent’ legislation. This type of legislation has absolutely no business in a country that aspires to join the European Union and which subscribes to principles of democratic governance. We call on Georgian MPs to drop this bill and to instead focus on ensuring a safe and free environment for independent media to do their jobs.”
‘Suppressing civil society and independent media’
The foreign agent legislation has been initiated in Parliament by a group called “People’s Power”, which is an offshoot of the ruling Georgian Dream party. Although the group claims to have left the ruling party, they never officially registered as a separate entity, whether as a party or as a parliamentary faction.
“There is no other possible rationale behind this law other than suppressing civil society and independent media”, Mariam Gogosashvili, executive director of the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, told IPI. “This decision follows an ongoing assault on the media and civil society, with instances ranging from targeted physical violence to smear campaigns. But now, it ultimately boils down to a matter of existence for a free press and civil society, the main guardians of freedom and democracy in the country.”
During the week, while the bills were debated in the Foreign Affairs and Legal Committees, rallies were regularly held in front of the parliament, during which a number of citizens, including two journalists, were arrested. Some opposition MPs were not even allowed to attend the sessions, and the hearings were accompanied by fistfights.
Police using water cannon against peaceful demonstrator waving EU flag outside the Georgian Parliament protesting the adoption of the Russian-style anti-NGO law. pic.twitter.com/AXS1HyzC9Y
— Formula NEWS | English (@FormulaGe) March 7, 2023
Content and objectives: What is this all about?
Two different foreign agent bills have been introduced in the Georgian parliament. The first resembles its Russian counterpart, while the second one shares commonalities with the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), and is therefore referred to as an ‘American law’ by Georgian Dream. The critical difference, however, is that FARA does not require registration simply on the grounds of foreign funding. “Rather, one must be an agent of a foreign principal, including if one acts at the direction and control of a foreign government”, as specified in a report by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL).
The bill that was passed in a first reading on Tuesday is the first version resembling its Russian counterpart.
The definition of ‘foreign agent’ will effectively cover the entire spectrum of pro-democracy watchdogs and think-tanks, regional chapters and associations of global humanitarian and development groups, and independent media outlets.
Georgian Dream MPs claim that the main objective for proposing the law is to increase the transparency of NGO and media company funding. Yet, according to current legislation, NGOs and media are already reporting on their funding to the national Revenue Service, which both government officials and citizens have access to.
Free media and civil society plan to resist
More than 60 Georgia-based media organizations have announced that they will not comply with the law, declaring that it “insults our professional dignity.”
Tbilisi-based independent publisher OC Media is among the media companies that plans to refuse to register as a “foreign agent”. OC Media’s co-director, Mariam Nikuradze, told IPI that the team might consider registering in neighboring Armenia as a means to circumvent legislation. “Relocating to Armenia is our backup plan, but we believe we can resist for now”, she said. “It is critical for all independent publishers to refuse to register as a ‘foreign agent’.”
In Georgia’s highly partisan and polarized media scene, a large share of independent publishers are donor-funded. Nikuradze added that the legislation would not only negatively impact donor-funded publishers, but also those who generate substantial revenues from advertising. Many businesses will likely be wary of featuring their advertisements in media outlets labeled as “foreign agents.”
Gogosashvili, of the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, added that “unanimity among the media outlets and CSOs refusing to register as an agent is the only correct approach”. She argues that journalists should not consent to marking themselves with a “foreign agent” label by agreeing to register, as was the case in Russia.
The response from the international community
Following the introduction of the “foreign agents” bill in parliament, Georgia has faced increasing pressure from the international community to reconsider its plans. International partners have cautioned that enacting such legislation could jeopardize the country’s current partnerships and hinder its efforts towards European integration.
But Nikuradze said that the period when statements by Western partners could influence the decisions of the Georgian government seems to be over. In fact, she said that an undemocratic regime already in place had transformed into an increasingly authoritarian one since the onset of the war in Ukraine. “A more effective approach would thus be to impose sanctions on the MPs who endorse the bills”, she argued.
Georgia’s road to democracy has been bumpy. The country has been regarded as a regional leader in democratic reforms, showing significant improvement during the period after the change of government in 2012–13. In recent years, however, Georgia has undergone rapid democratic backsliding due to the outsized proportion of power in the hands of oligarchic figures, the erosion of democratic institutions, and as a result of severe political polarization. In parallel, the country’s plans for integration with the West have been put into question. The enactment of the foreign agent bill threatens to be a final straw for Georgia’s democratic prospects and its aspirations for EU membership.