The International Press Institute (IPI) calls on Georgian MPs to scrap plans for “foreign agent” legislation that echoes similar laws in authoritarian states, such as that in neighboring Russia. While the bill’s authors have claimed that the law would be based on “principles of openness and transparency”, the measures risk being used as a weapon to discredit media and non-governmental organizations.

The draft law on “foreign agents” was proposed by a group of MPs aligned with Georgia’s ruling party who refer to themselves as the People’s Power movement. The group is an offshoot of the Georgian Dream coalition in power since 2012. It propagates claims of a conspiracy allegedly aiming to bring down the Georgian government to enact rule of law reforms necessary for further integration with the European Union.

The bill, officially titled “On the Transparency of Foreign Influence”, has been put forward as an attempt to “uncover” organizations allegedly part of this “conspiracy”. It has also been endorsed by some members of the Georgian Dream coalition. Speaker of Parliament Shalva Papuashvili, a member of Georgian Dream, has not explicitly stated support for the initiative but says it should be open to discussion. The chair of Georgian Dream, Irakli Kobakhidze, has expressed support for the bill. In the same vein, Mikheil Sarjveladze, head of the Georgian parliament’s human rights committee endorsed the initiative, claiming that society is entitled to more transparency over the funding of media and civil society organizations.

“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,” IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “Putin’s foreign agent law has been one of the Kremlin’s most potent weapons to crush press freedom and freedom of expression, among other rights, in Russia. Such legislation has absolutely no business in a country that aspires to join the European Union and which subscribes to principles of democratic governance.”

“While proponents may claim this is about transparency, we fear that this law could in fact be used to discredit critical media by smearing them as agents of foreign influence and therefore a threat to Georgian society and security. It would also give the state a powerful tool to intimidate dissenting voices, including journalists. Ultimately, it risks depriving the Georgian public of their right to diverse sources of news and information.”

“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.”

‘Agents’ of foreign powers

According to a draft obtained by OC Media, the law would introduce the term “agent of foreign influence” into Georgian legislation. An “agent” would be defined as any non-profit organization, or any broadcaster, online media outlet, or publishing house receiving at least 20 percent of its non-advertising revenue from “foreign powers”. A “foreign power” would include institutions of foreign states, individual citizens of foreign countries, legal entities not located in Georgia, and organizations acting under the laws of foreign states or under international law.

“Agents of foreign influence” would need to register with the Georgian National Agency of Public Registry and then submit yearly declarations on the sources of their revenues. All information provided to state institutions in this process would be made public. Failure to register as an “agent of foreign influence” would be an administrative offense, punishable by fines of up to 25.000 GEL (8800 euros).

In parallel, the Ministry of Justice would receive the right to monitor organizations suspected of receiving foreign financing, as well as to request information on this funding from other state institutions. Private individuals would also receive the right to report an organization suspected of being an “agent of foreign influence”.

Politicians representing People’s Power argue that the law is necessary as Georgia allegedly lacks transparency with regards to the financing of civil society groups and media. They claim that these organizations are responsible for political polarization and radicalization in the country. Notably, People’s Power deputies say that they left Georgian Dream with the party’s support to be able to “speak openly” about a supposed Western conspiracy to drag Georgia into war with Russia, allegedly conducted through covert campaigns in internationally sponsored media and nonprofits. The topic remains sensitive in Georgia, which remains under partial occupation by Russian forces, who support separatist, internationally unrecognized governments in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region controlling approximately 20 percent of the country’s territory.

In response to the bill introduced by People’s Power, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) expressed concern on Twitter regarding its alignment with democratic and human rights principles. Additionally, PACE urged Georgian MPs not to support the bill.

The Netherlands Helsinki Committee, along with 40 other non-governmental organizations, urged the government to refrain from passing the proposed legislation. The bill is “controlling and restricting”, and replicates the practice of authoritarian states, according to the statement.

Growing threats to press freedom and journalist safety

In recent years, press freedom in Georgia has suffered considerable setbacks. This decline became especially visible in July 2021, when more than 50 media workers were subject to large-scale violence while covering anti-Pride protests in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, followed by the death of cameraman Aleksandre Lashkarava. The imprisonment of the director of the popular TV channel Mtavari Arkhi, Nika Gvaramia, in May 2022, was another sign of this decline. Gvaramia was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for corruption in what was widely considered a politically motivated trial.

As for “foreign agent” legislation itself, the danger of such regulations is best showcased by the situation in Russia, where repressive laws on the topic were adopted immediately after Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidential office in 2012. Over the next decade, the legislation was progressively tightened to become ever-more repressive: if initially it only targeted foreign-funded non-profit organizations, the Russian criminal and administrative offenses codes now foresee fines for any organization, person, or “unregistered social group” receiving any amount of foreign funds or even simply declared to be “under foreign influence” by the Ministry of Justice. Russia’s never-ending fall into increasing repression with the use of “foreign agent” laws shows just how dangerous of a precedent such a law would set in Georgia if voted in parliament.

No EU member state has passed such legislation, though in 2017 Hungary passed a law which applied to foreign-funded organizations and NGOs but excluded the press, which was later found to violate EU law by the Court of Justice of the European Union. Plans by a far-right party in Bulgaria to draft a similar ‘foreign agent’ bill were met with international condemnation and were ultimately not brought to parliament.