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'Attack On Free Speech': Controversial 'Foreign Agent' Law Debated In Georgia

Journalists protested against the draft bill at Georgia's parliament in Tbilisi on February 20.
Journalists protested against the draft bill at Georgia's parliament in Tbilisi on February 20.

TBILISI -- The corridors of Georgia's parliament building were blocked on February 20 as a small group of journalists and civil activists, with signs reading "No to Putin's Law" staged a protest. Inside, Georgian lawmakers gathered to decide on whether to register a controversial draft "foreign agent" law.

The draft, which copies a similar law infamously introduced in Russia in 2012, would brand media, NGOs, and other civil society organizations that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from foreign sources as "agents of foreign influence," requiring them to register in a Foreign Influence Agents Registry. Failure to do so would result in fines of up to 25,000 laris ($9,400).

The bill, which has now been approved for consideration, has been slammed by observers as an act of sabotage to Georgia's EU candidacy aspirations and an attack on freedom of speech, stoking concern that it will lead to crackdowns on civil liberties similar to that in Russia.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili has warned the draft bill brings the country "closer to the flawed Russian model and not to the European model" in a statement released by the presidential administration.

Journalists protest inside the parliament on February 20.
Journalists protest inside the parliament on February 20.

The U.S. State Department has expressed "deep concern" over the draft, saying its adoption could "potentially undermine Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration."

Speaking to reporters in Washington on February 15, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the proposed legislation "would stigmatize and silence independent voices and citizens of Georgia who are dedicated to building a better future for their own communities."

The bill was submitted to parliament by People's Power, an anti-Western offshoot party from the incumbent Georgian Dream that formed in August 2022, raising questions over whether more extreme fringe political factions are gaining currency and increasingly becoming an influential force within Georgian policy making.

"This project is the idea of the majority to stop the work of independent organizations and people, to force us to accept this shameful status and declare ourselves as 'enemies of the state'," says Natia Kapanadze, the director of Media ombudsman, a local media watchdog. "The adoption of the law will be a sign of Russian rule in Georgia. We will gradually lose associates, foreign partners, and the European future of the Georgian state. This is a very critical and historical moment for the Georgian state."

People's Power claims that the foreign agents bill is an attempt to make the sources of revenue of NGOs and media, which it contends "aim to influence public decisions," more transparent. However, those who work in organizations that receive funding from foreign sources say the information about their sources of funding is already transparent and publicly available.

The development of free media since Georgia gained its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union has been far from smooth. The presence of political polarization, which mars Georgian political culture and often stymies constructive conversation about policy, has strongly influenced Georgian media, too. With many outlets funded by the government, media in Georgia are often partisan, with the political tone and ideology of an outlet often set by their allegiance to the incumbent Georgian Dream or opposition.

"Independent media don't have a long history in Georgia," says Tazo Kupreishvili, the editor of the Georgian-language news outlet Netgazeti. Founded in 2010 with grants from the Open Society Foundation, Netgazeti is one of Georgia's few remaining independent media outlets. Over the years, Netgazeti has received support from organizations like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Britain's BBC, and Germany's Deutsche Welle, which either offer direct grants or journalism training programs for local reporters.

"Their support has been a huge help for us," Kupreishvili says. "Ideally, a media organization should be able to fund themselves, but for us, small businesses here don't have money for media advertisement, and large organizations are usually close to the government, and therefore don't want to fund critical media. The only way for us to survive is to get grants from international organizations to maintain our independence."

The bill is likely to further jeopardize Georgia's aspirations for EU accession. After making a policy pivot in the days following the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Georgian government sped up its EU application, slated for 2024, and applied for EU membership status along with the other two countries of the so-called Association Trio: Ukraine and Moldova. Once the frontrunner of the three, Georgia has now fallen behind, with the EU Commission deferring Georgia's member status and issuing a list of 12 recommendations Georgia must enact in order to be considered for such membership status. Among them is a directive to undertake "stronger efforts to guarantee a free, professional, pluralistic, and independent media environment."

Founded by Russian-linked oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream came to power in 2012 after ousting the pro-Western former President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement party. Although publicly maintaining a facade of EU aspirations for the country increasingly during its time in power, Georgian Dream has moved away from its previous Western orientation. Just weeks before the European Commission was set to make a decision on Georgia's application for candidate status, a high-profile opposition journalist was jailed and controversial amendments to the criminal code were rushed through against EU recommendations.

"The [proposed] law is terrible," says journalist Mariam Nikuradze, executive director at OC Media, an English-language news outlet covering the Caucasus that receives over 90 percent of its funding from foreign sources. "It's not good for Georgia's EU aspirations, especially given that we are expecting our candidate status to be reviewed again at the end of year. And of course, it's terrible for freedom of speech and the media. It's now clear that the government is doing everything to deprive Georgia of the possibility for it to join the EU."

Should the bill be signed into law, OC Media would be a candidate for foreign agent status, and as executive director, Nikuradze would be responsible for registering OC Media as a foreign agent. "It means I will be named," she says. "So, the Justice Ministry can screen all of my transactions. I don't like the idea that the government will check everything that I'm doing. I'm a journalist. It should be the other way around."

The expansion of scope of the foreign agent law in Russia over the past decade is heightening concerns over where the introduction of the law in Georgia will end.

In Russia, the original 2012 legislation, which targeted NGOs and rights groups, has since been expanded to target media organizations, individual journalists, YouTube vloggers, and virtually anyone who receives money from outside of Russia and, in the eyes of the Kremlin, voices a political opinion.

Daria Apakhonchich, a Russian activist and volunteer who teaches Russian to refugees and migrant women, moved to Tbilisi after leaving Russia two years ago, when she found herself labeled as a foreign agent.

"In Russia, this law started with organizations, and after a few years they changed the law and now it's for individuals as well," Apakhonchich says. "It's not a good idea. This law won't be the end of it."

Daria Apakhonchich, a Russian activist and volunteer who teaches Russian to refugees and migrant women, moved to Tbilisi after leaving Russia two years ago, when she found herself labeled as a foreign agent.
Daria Apakhonchich, a Russian activist and volunteer who teaches Russian to refugees and migrant women, moved to Tbilisi after leaving Russia two years ago, when she found herself labeled as a foreign agent.

The contradiction between the law's introduction and the EU's recommendations for Georgia's possible candidacy will, analysts say, make Georgia's chances of EU accession even less likely.

"It will further damage Georgia's already shaken international reputation and solidify emerging authoritarianism," says Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics think tank. "After effectively marginalizing political opposition in Georgia, the real aim of this bill is to do the same with civil society and independent media. It will negatively affect the EU candidate status Georgia is expecting at the end of year."

On February 21, nearly 300 NGOs and media outlets in Georgia published a joint statement condemning the proposed legislation and declaring that "the Russian law is not the will of Georgia."

"It's important to understand that if this is the beginning of the same process as what we had in Russia, then there will be a horrible ending," Apakhonchich says.

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    Nadia Beard

    Nadia Beard is a journalist and critic. Her work has appeared in the Financial Times, National Geographic, The Guardian, and The Times Literary Supplement.

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