Accessibility links

Breaking News

Georgia poised to adopt 'foreign influence transparency' law akin to Russia's

Security forces operate as demonstrators hold a rally to protest against a 'foreign influence' bill in Tbilisi, Georgia, May 1, 2024.
Security forces operate as demonstrators hold a rally to protest against a 'foreign influence' bill in Tbilisi, Georgia, May 1, 2024.

Independent journalists in Georgia are speaking out against a proposed “foreign influence transparency” law that closely mimics Russian legislation and, they fear, will be used to limit press freedom in the country.

Tens of thousands of Georgians — many of them young — have taken to the streets to protest the legislation, which they believe will undermine Georgia’s bid for Euro-Atlantic integration.

Police have cracked down on demonstrators, using water cannons, pepper spray, tear gas and sometimes rubber bullets. Several journalists have been injured during the protests.

Parliament, controlled by the ruling Georgian Dream party, has approved the second reading of the bill. If passed, the law will require any media organization, and any nongovernmental organization or other nonprofit, that receives more than 20% of its funding from abroad, to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” and provide financial statements. Failure to do so would result in fines.

Nino Zuriashvilli, a 25-year veteran investigative journalist and editor who worked for the “60 Minutes” program on Georgia’s Rustavi 2 television channel as well as other media projects, now leads Studio Monitori, an award-winning independent investigative media group.

She told VOA’s Georgian Service that more than 250 journalistic investigations and other, smaller projects were made possible thanks to foreign funding, mostly from the United States through the National Endowment for Democracy and U.S. Embassy as well as European and Open Society Foundations.

Over the past three decades, the United States has provided approximately $6 billion in assistance to Georgia, including $1.9 billion from the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, to strengthen the country’s security and democratic institutions.

Zuriashvilli said foreign funding allows her to serve the Georgian people’s interests, not those of foreign governments or Georgian politicians.

“How can we be serving foreign interests when we tell Georgian people the truth about the quality of the air they breathe? [We tell] about the Georgian rivers, forests, Georgian lands, truth about the Georgian judges and the corruption or nepotism in the judiciary, in other Georgian public offices, spending of people’s money. …

“When we provide them with the truth that is hard to find and hard to prove about what is going on in their country, for their own informed decisions, how shall this be considered pursuing the interests of foreign powers?”

International press freedom and human rights groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, the European Federation of Journalists, Amnesty International and Freedom House, believe the law is aimed at limiting press freedom and freedom of expression.

“The aim of this legislation is not to increase transparency, but to pressure the media and attack its independence,” Ricardo Gutierrez, a former journalist who is general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists, told VOA’s Georgian Service. “It’s clear to me that the aim is to impose self-censorship, to make it difficult for journalists to fully fulfill their role as watchdogs.”

The Georgian government’s aim, he added, is to portray “journalists as if they could be spies working in the interest of foreign powers … and, in a way, to criminalize journalism.”

Officials of the European Union, which in December 2023 granted Georgia membership candidate status, have said the bill could derail Tbilisi’s hopes for European integration. Likewise, the U.S. Department of State said the “Kremlin-inspired” measure puts Georgia’s Western trajectory at risk.

Officials in the Georgian Dream party claim that the law would actually “Europeanize” Georgian NGOs and help donors. Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze has accused foreign diplomats and Western officials of baseless and humiliating criticism and “speaking the language of blackmail.”

Kobakhidze accused foreign-funded NGOs and media organizations of exacerbating “radicalism and polarization, supporting the revolutionary processes, war propaganda, pseudo-liberal ideology and actions against the national and religious identity of Georgia.”

Copied from Russia?

Press freedom defenders say the proposed law dangerously resembles Russia’s foreign agent law, which has been used to jail or intimidate international reporters who refused to register as foreign agents.

“This law is totally against the European legal standards on freedom of association and expression, against EU legal standards, or any country in the EU, there is no example. The countries where these type of laws are long enacted are Russia and Belarus,” said the European Federation of Journalists’ Ricardo Gutierrez.

“We have a concrete example from Russia where this foreign agent law exists and we know how journalists are silenced because of this law and the pressure put on them.”

A protester holds a crossed out flag of Russia during a rally against the controversial "foreign influence" bill in Tbilisi, Georgia, on May 3, 2024.
A protester holds a crossed out flag of Russia during a rally against the controversial "foreign influence" bill in Tbilisi, Georgia, on May 3, 2024.

In an April 29 speech supporting the proposed law, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire Georgian Dream party founder who is often called Georgia’s “shadow ruler,” told supporters that foreign-funded NGOs threaten Georgian sovereignty.

"The financing of NGOs, which presents itself as help for us, is in reality for strengthening [foreign] intelligence agencies, and for bringing them to power," Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.

Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told VOA’s Georgian Service that such rhetoric echoes that of Russian government officials and “autocrats.”

The proposed law is “against any democratic principles,” she said, adding that it is “very similar to the Russian foreign agent law” and “seems to be not just Kremlin-inspired, but maybe even supported and lobbied by the Kremlin.”

If enacted by the end of this spring, the law will be in effect during most of the campaign leading up to Georgia’s parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26.

‘Autocratizing hybrid’

International human rights groups have described Georgia as a “hybrid democracy” and Freedom House recently downgraded it to a “autocratizing hybrid,” in no small part because of the proposed bill.

Georgia dropped from 77th place to 103rd place out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ 2024 Press Freedom Index. According to the press freedom watchdog, Georgia’s ruling party continues to polarize society, cultivate rapprochement with Moscow and conduct a policy that is increasingly hostile to press freedom.

It cited Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan as countries where media censorship has intensified in an “astonishing mimicry of Russian repressive methods.”

Polls by the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute have consistently found that an overwhelming majority of Georgians support the country joining the EU and believe its future lies with the West. Russia currently illegally occupies up to 20% of Georgia’s sovereign territory.

Some Georgian journalists say the law on “foreign influence transparency” is just the latest step that the current Georgian government has taken to silence dissent and limit freedom of information.

“This law is only the culmination of what we’ve experienced for the last couple of years,” said Studio Monitori investigative reporter Tskriala Shermadini. “We have taken several agencies to court for not providing the public information in response of our official, lawful requests.”

Lika Zakashvili, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Publika, an online Georgian media outlet, was among the journalists hit with pepper spray and tear gas during the recent protests in Tbilisi.

She says her organization will never register as a “foreign agent” and that she remains hopeful.

“They will have to take back this bill again,” Zakashvili said. “We work in service of the Georgian people, not foreign powers.”