Call for solidarity with civil society and independent media in Georgia in their resistance against the draft law on “Agents of Foreign Influence”
27 Feb 2023
On February 20 2023, a draft law on “Agents of Foreign Influence” was submitted to the Georgian parliament. It raises serious concerns about the state of freedom, democracy, and social justice in the country, and compromises hard-won progress in the field of human rights.
As outlined in the draft law, any Georgian-language media and broadcaster, as well as any non-governmental organization (NGO) registered in Georgia would be directly affected if over 20% of their annual income comes from a “foreign power”, i.e. foundations/organizations registered outside of Georgia. Such media and NGOs would be forced to register on a ‘Foreign Influence Agents Registry’ and disclose foreign funding. If they failed to do so, they would risk being fined up to 25,000 Georgian Lari (US $9,400).
Initiated by People´s Power, a fraction of the Parliament’s ruling party Georgian Dream, the draft is similar to the foreign agent law which was first adopted by Russia in 2012. Shortly after submission, the Speaker of Parliament and other MPs endorsed the draft. It will be opened to official discussion with the precise timeline for voting and adoption unclear.
Call for international solidarity
Georgian civil society’s stance is loud and clear – this Russian law is not the will of Georgian people. Over 380 civil society organizations have signed a statement outlining their strong opposition against the initiated bill, and declaring that it attacks not only independent civil society organizations and critical media, but the people of Georgia themselves.
At this turning point for freedom and democracy, we call on international communities and the philanthropic ecosystem to show solidarity with civil society and independent media in Georgia in the resistance against the draft law on “Agents of Foreign Influence.”
We take current grassroots-led organizing as crucial crisis prevention work as we oversee severe consequences, and we urge not to underestimate the damage the law can have on freedom of speech and rule of law in Georgia. Moreover, currently, local organizers are strategizing on crisis preparedness as the law will have an immediate impact not only on civil society but also on hundreds of thousands of people whom CSOs are serving. Here is what you could do:
- If you have partners in Georgia, reach out to them directly asking what support they currently need to prepare for the impact of the law passing;
- Amplify the current developments in Georgia, political messages, demands, and propositions of civil society and media. Raise awareness about the implications of the law locally and internationally and to prepare for the possible impact of the law passing;
- Engage with others in your international organizing and funding communities, and join upcoming processes to co-create strategies for resistance, response, and future strategizing.
More about the context and practical implications of the foreign agents law
The initiators of the draft law on Agents of Foreign Influence insist on the urgent need for transparency in foreign funding, and question intentions of civil society and media, and as they propose legislative changes, they claim that additional regulations and monitoring are necessary. These claims dismiss the current practice and mechanisms of accountability and monitoring that are led by governmental bodies themselves.
Civil society organizations in Georgia submit annual meticulous financial and program reports to the Ministry of Finance with detailed information on income sources and expenditures. In addition, CSOs carry out annual and biannual audits, and such information is publicly available on their websites.
The governmental discourse on the necessity of strict regulations of civil society further contributes towards negative public sentiments, fragmentation, and polarization of public opinion, and plays important role in further stigmatizing and vilifying it. Moreover, it hinders public mobilization and solidarity not only as a pushback to the draft law, but as a resistance towards government’s anti-democratic and anti-rights course.
The Public Defender’s Office considers that the proposed document does not comply with international or domestic human rights standards and is incompatible with the basic principles of a modern democratic state. For example, the law may may contravene the right to privacy as upon registration, those with foreign agent status would be required to declare the physical location of foreign agents. Authorized governmental bodies would be allowed to collect, access and publish any information about the agent, including personal data of people in close relationships with so called foreign agents.
Impact of the law on “Agents of Foreign Influence” on Georgia
As a crackdown and attack on democracy, the law would further invigorate the hostile political environment in Georgia. If adopted, the law on “Agents of Foreign Influence” would severely restrict the ability of civil society and the media to effectively and independently engage with public affairs, and would significantly limit the ability to work without fear of government reprisal or harassment.
Considering that local sources of funding are dire, state funding to civil societies is practically non-existent and foreign funding is the major resource of income, the law contributes to financial instability and unsustainability of the Georgian civil society.
Since Georgia´s independence from the Soviet Union, civil society has played an increasingly stronger role in bridging critical capacity, knowledge, and resource gaps while providing social services, and programming for the most vulnerable populations in the country.
CSOs and independent media play key role in human rights protection, advancing social justice, and holding the government accountable. For example, CSOs are filling the gap in the government’s social duties as they lead human rights and development programs for internally displaced people, ethnic and religious minorities, people with disabilities, HIV positive people, among others. Limiting access to the foreign funding will collapse achievements made, and will further deepen existing social inequalities.
Moreover, for three decades now, Georgian civil society has played a key role in advancing policy and practice with human rights approaches at its core. Since the collapse of the communist regime in the beginning of the 1990s, the government of Georgia undertook a number of important obligations to improve the status of women, including ratification of CEDAW Convention and elaboration of NAPs to achieve gender equality. In the course of the past years, Georgia adopted the Law on Gender Equality (2010) and the Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence, Protection and Assistance of Victims of Domestic Violence (2006) and the Law against Trafficking, as well as the law on elimination of all forms of discrimination (2014) and the so-called Istanbul Convention (2017). The initiation of the foreign agent’s law jeopardizes advancements made and presents a major setback to any potential further improvements in compliance with human rights standards.
Connections with the Russian Foreign Agent law
There are striking similarities between both versions: similarly to the Georgian proposal, the Russian foreign agent law requires media and non-governmental organizations who receive support from outside of Russia to register and declare themselves as “foreign agents”. Once registered, they are subject to additional audits. The foreign agent label which is of a highly stigmatizing nature prohibits civil society organizations to perform their duties for the communities they represent and serve, increases difficulties in providing crucial services to vulnerable communities, and in a major way fuels mistrust in the society.
Taking into consideration the experience of other countries such as Belarus, Azerbaijan, Hungary, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan as well as the Russian Federation, where similar legislation has already been adopted, the law on foreign agents has rapidly transformed into an instrument to shrink space for civil society and increase state control, alongside persecution and harassment of social justice activists. Furthermore, it has been used as a mechanism to systemically silence and enable mass shut-downs of independent media outlets that openly critique the state and make public coverage about corruption, unlawful prosecutions, etc.
Given all that context, we call for international attention and solidarity as this law will be another step closer to erasure of independent, critical and progressive civil society and independent media.
The statement is a joint effort of CEECCNA Collaborative Fund and Women’s Fund in Georgia.
CEECCNA Collaborative Fund is a new regional funding mechanism of crisis preparedness and response to fill critical gaps in resourcing Central and Eastern Europe, Caucasus, Central, and North Asia with holistic, long-lasting, and consistent movement-defined and movement-led strategies.
Women’s Fund in Georgia (WFG – founded in 2005) is a local grantmaking organization supporting women’s rights groups/organizations and individual activists for social changes with financial resources, with capacity building and with promoting the culture of feminist philanthropy. Over 18 years, WFG has awarded around 1,000 grants nationwide, and organized over 200 local and international fundraising events. WFG’s target groups are mostly groups of underprivileged women, who live in rural areas, women with disabilities, LBTQ+ persons, young women and girls, etc. WFG is an activist fund and not only supports women’s movement but is also a part of it.