Georgia’s parliament urged to reject “foreign agents” bill
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Georgia’s parliamentarians to reject a proposed “foreign agents” law that is closely based on the one used to gag journalists and civil society in recent years in Russia. The growing authoritarianism in Georgia is worrying, RSF says.
Update on 9/03/2022: After protests and international pressure, the ruling Georgian Dream party decided on 9 March 2022 to withdraw the text. It was formally rejected by Parliament the following day.
“This proposed ‘foreign agents’ law poses a threat to press freedom in Georgia,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Far removed from international standards, it targets only media and NGOs in what is a clear attempt to stigmatize and intimidate them. The Russian precedent has shown us the dramatic consequences of such a law. We call on parliament to reject this draconian bill, which would make any European future impossible for Georgia.
This law could change the face of Georgian democracy for a long time. Parliament is due to vote on the “foreign agents” bill this week, less than a month after the original version was submitted by the new People’s Power party on 14 February. The ruling Georgian Dream party has already announced that it will support it.
The bill’s declared aim is more transparency about the funding of independent media and NGOs operating in Georgia, but its real aim is to obstruct their work. Those receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad would be given the label of “foreign agent,” a synonym for “foreign spy” in Georgian. This status would entail major administrative burdens for these media and NGOs, and any violations would expose them to significant penalties.
The bill is very similar to the law that was passed in Russia in 2012 and has been used since 2017 to specifically target media outlets and journalists. The bill’s backers, who reject the comparison, proposed a new version on 27 February, which they say conforms to European standards and is based on the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). But the new version is harsher than the first one, with penalties of up to five years in prison. And it now also concerns individuals, unlike the FARA, which mainly targets the US branches of foreign political parties and foreign governmental organisations.
Opposition to the bill
The bill has caused an outcry. Two journalists were briefly arrested and another was injured during a protest outside parliament on the evening of 2 March. Police arrested Tabula news website reporter Beka Jikurashvili when he asked them why they were arresting protesters. The other journalist, Zura Vardiashvili, who runs Publika, a media outlet specialising in public policy, was arrested while chanting a slogan critical of the law. Parliament subsequently suspended the accreditation of Publika's three correspondents, Natia Amiranashvili, Keti Goguadze and Natia Leverashvili, for a month. Niko Kokaia, a cameraman with the opposition TV channel TV Pirveli, was caught in a brawl between police and demonstrators, sustaining a leg injury for which doctors ordered ten days rest.
Many journalists expressed their opposition to the bill within the parliament building on 27 February, and more than 60 media outlets have announced their intention not to comply with the law if it is passed. A petition against the bill has been signed by more than 260 organisations including the respected Journalistic Ethics Charter of Georgia.
Internationally, the bill has received strong criticism from representatives of the United Nations and the European Union. Neither of the bill’s two versions complies with European law and both also contravene two of the 12 conditions set by the EU for Georgia to be a candidate for EU membership. Georgia’s president, Salome Zourabichvili, has threatened to veto the law on the grounds that it would prevent a European future for Georgia.
The background to the bill is one of increasing attacks on independent and opposition media and Georgia's growing estrangement from Europe. Ever since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the party behind the bill, People’s Power, has been very critical of the West, suspecting it of wanting to drag Georgia into a war against Russia.
As well as smear campaigns against several media outlets, concern about the possibility of censorship has been fuelled by a radio broadcasting law passed in December that is supposed to regulate hate speech. The growing pressure on journalists from the Georgian government is also reflected in the sentence of three and a half years in prison that Nika Gvaramia, the head of the opposition TV channel Mtavari Arkhi TV, received last May.