Georgia: Parliament must reject new “foreign agents” bill

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Zura Narimanishvili via Unsplash

Paris-Geneva, February 23, 2023 – Initiated by People’s Power political group, the draft Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence is incompatible with international and regional standards on the rights to freedom of association and expression, alerted the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, partnership of World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). The Parliament of Georgia must reject this bill and ensure civil society organisations and independent media are not stigmatised as “foreign agents”.

Government-aligned and member of the parliamentary majority People’s Power movement submitted a draft Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence to the Parliament of Georgia on February 14, 2023. The bill contains provisions that severely restrict the rights to freedom of association and expression in the country, and its enactment into law would pose a serious threat to critical and independent voices in Georgia. Yet, the ruling party Georgian Dream’s spokesperson has already announced the group’s support to the bill, while affirming that any analogies with Russia’s draconian “foreign agents” legislation are simply “lies”.

Far from it, under this draft law, any media outlets and non-entrepreneurial legal entities —the most common form of non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Georgia— receiving over 20% of their income from foreign sources would have to register and label themselves as “agents of foreign influence”. They would also have to fill out an annual financial declaration that would have to be approved by the Ministry of Justice. These requirements are very similar to those imposed by the early iterations of the Russian legislation, which has been found to violate freedoms of expression and association by the European Court of Human Rights. Initiators of the bill argue these provisions respond to Georgian citizens’ need to “distinguish cases of positive and non-positive [political] influence” on the country, for them to “form their own political and social views”. Yet, undue restrictions on the right to freedom of association foreseen in this bill would have a direct impact on free public debate in Georgia were it to be passed, as it would be used to stifle media outlets and NGOs critical of the government.

The draft law would also impose burdensome reporting requirements on NGOs and media outlets, and would expose them to unlimited inspections by the government, regardless of whether they receive foreign funding. For instance, under this bill the Ministry of Justice would have discretionary powers to investigate and obtain documents, including personal data, from organisations believed to be “agents of foreign influence”. Failure to comply with the draft law’s provisions would result in harsh and unreasonable penalties amounting to up to 8,500 Euros fines. The draft law was officially registered before the Parliament’s Bureau on February 20, 2023, and will be reviewed by the Parliamentary Committees on Defence and Security and on Foreign Relations, respectively, before being debated and voted by all parliamentary groups.

The Observatory expresses great concern over the negative impact the “foreign agents” bill will have on Georgia’s civic space should it be enacted into law, and condemns the stigmatisation of independent media outlets and NGOs. Using “foreign agents”-related terminology to label civil society organisations and media pollutes the public discourse and has a chilling effect on their activities. The Observatory also urges the Parliament of Georgia to reject the draft Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence and calls on the authorities to respect, protect and promote the rights to freedom of association and expression in the country, in accordance with regional and international human rights standards, particularly Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and Articles 19 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Georgia is a state party.

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