Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili addresses lawmakers in Tbilisi on December 11, 2020. A draft law, which Zurabishvili opposes, would require some media outlets to register as foreign agents. (AFP/Vano Shlamov)

Georgia draft laws seek to brand media outlets as foreign agents

Stockholm, March 1, 2023 – Georgian legislators should reject attempts to designate media outlets as foreign agents, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.

On February 20, the Georgian Parliament approved for further discussion a draft bill that would require media outlets and nongovernmental organizations that receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign sources to register as “agents of foreign influence,” according to news reports.

On Monday, February 27, that legislation’s authors registered a second bill, which they described as a direct translation of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili criticized the first bill after the draft was approved, according to news reports. Irakli Kobakhidze, chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party, which together with the bill’s sponsors controls a parliamentary majority large enough to override a presidential veto, said the parliament would pass one of the bills by June after seeking assessments from the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe.

“Tarnishing journalists as ‘foreign agents’ is a trick straight out of every authoritarian regime’s playbook and has no place on the democratic path which Georgia’s government claims to be taking,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Georgia’s parliament should reject any legislation that would brand media as foreign agents, and its government should take concrete steps to demonstrate a commitment to media diversity.”

The first bill, “On Transparency of Foreign Influence” would require organizations receiving foreign funding to provide detailed annual accounts, including information about the source, amount, and purpose of any funds received or spent, for a publicly available register.

Organizations that fail to register or to provide such data would be subject to fines of 25,000 lari (US$9,500). The bill’s text does not oblige media outlets to label their publications as produced by a foreign agent, in contrast to current Russian legislation.

The second bill, “On Registration of Foreign Agents,” is an abridged translation of the U.S. FARA legislation, and its penalties include fines and up to five years in prison for noncompliance. CPJ has previously criticized the use of FARA, highlighted how other governments cite it to justify repression, and called on the Biden administration to stop compelling media organizations to register under the law.

Mamuka Andguladze, chair of the Media Advocacy Coalition trade group, told CPJ in a phone interview that there was “no objective need” for either bill, as information on organizations’ ownership is already publicly available and authorities have full access to financial records, which many organizations choose to publish.

Andguladze said he believed the bills aimed to “stigmatize and suppress” critical media and nongovernmental groups in Georgia, following Russia’s use of such legislation, and that the FARA-styled bill was simply a “communications strategy” on the part of the government.

As of February 28, more than 70 local media outlets had signed a statement describing the bill approved for discussion on February 20 as an insult to their professional dignity and declaring they would refuse to register should it be adopted.

CPJ emailed the Georgian Dream party for comment and contacted People’s Power, the party whose deputies proposed the bill, at its official Facebook page, but did not receive any replies.