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Tbilisi protest against 'foreign agent' bill, 05.11.24
Tbilisi protest against 'foreign agent' bill, 05.11.24

On May 11, 2024, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in Tbilisi to protest the Georgian ruling party's proposed "foreign agents" bill. The smaller sign urges the rejection of the so-called Russian law. Image: Courtesy of Tbel Abuseridze



How Georgia Is Following a Russian Legal Blueprint to Suppress Independent Journalism

One year after massive protests caused the government in Georgia to abandon its  “foreign agents” law, the ruling party, Georgian Dream, is trying to pass it again just months before the country’s parliamentary elections. The bill is familiarly called the “Russian law” in Tbilisi because it reprises the legal tactics used by Russian president Vladimir Putin to hamper publications such as Novaya Gazeta and Meduza, some of the most influential Russian independent news media, who have since been forced into exile.

This legislative campaign is viewed by many journalists in Georgia as a further escalation in what increasingly resembles a coordinated assault on investigative media across countries formerly in the Soviet sphere. “I’m sure that it will make the same impact in Georgia [as in Russia] and will encourage a witch hunt on watchdogs,” warns Anna Gvarishvili, head of operations for the Investigative Media Lab at the University of Georgia.

The draft bill mandates that all businesses and nonprofits that get at least 20% of their money from outside the country be designated as foreign agents, as in Russia. It’s a broad enough definition to include nearly all of Georgia’s independent media and a large swath of the NGO community.

“We have more than 3,000 NGOs in Georgia,” notes Nino Ramishvili, an investigative reporter at GIJN member Studio Monitor. “Maybe more than 90% receive foreign donations. Georgia is a poor country; we depend on partners and donors.” Among Studio Monitor’s own donors is the National Endowment for Democracy, a US-based private nonprofit.

Ramishvili said the law is intentionally structured to discredit media sites like Studio Monitor, who have exposed potential corruption and previously undeclared wealth in the top ranks of Georgian Dream. “We say we’re independent, but people will think we are something else” based on this proposed law, she explains. “We can’t say, ‘We cover your problems, but we represent a foreign power.’”

Even though the bill has yet to pass, independent media are already being targeted for harassment. Since May 8, Studio Monitor’s office and the apartment of its founder, Nino Zuriashvili, have been defaced by unknown parties, who also painted slogans and offensive symbols on her car. Studio Monitor, in a Facebook post, denounced this “terror” that follows a “Russian scenario” and said the absence of a police investigation into the incidents strongly suggests “that the authorities are behind these facts.”

Graffiti targeting car of Studio Monitor Editor-in-Chief

The car of Studio Monitor founder Nino Zuriashvili was defaced, and spray-painted with slogans accusing her of being a foreign agent. Image: Facebook, Studio Monitor, Nino Vashivili

Georgian Dream claims the bill is modeled on the US Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), under which paid lobbying activities must be disclosed. Shalva Papuashvili, a leader in the party and currently Speaker of the Parliament, has said that citizens “have the right to know what special interests and what kind of financing stand behind the entities that participate in formulating and making political decisions.” (In fact, under current Georgian law, NGOs are already required to report all revenues and their sources.) The first of three votes to revive the so-called foreign agents measure took place on April 17. The opposition walked out in protest, but Georgian Dream’s large majority remained. The second vote came last week, and again the bill advanced thanks to Georgian Dream. The last reading and final vote on the bill is now scheduled for May 17.

If it passes, says Ramishvili, “we will be fined if we do not register.” The penalty for the first offense will cost approximately US$7500, an enormous sum for independent media outlets in Georgia, where the average net monthly salary in 2023 was equivalent to US$574. She adds: “We are not going to register.”

It’s hardly an easy win for the ruling party. No one here has forgotten that in March 2023, tens of thousands of protestors spontaneously gathered to denounce the first version of the law. In response, police deployed water cannons, stun grenades, and tear gas to violently disperse the crowd and arrested 169 people, including journalists. Fighting even broke out among politicians in Georgia’s parliament.

This time around, Georgian Dream began its campaign to pass the bill by mobilizing government employees to promote it on social media, as the Georgian investigative center iFact has shown. Protest demonstrations and police violence again followed the first plenary vote on April 17; 40 people were arrested, and the injured included an opposition member of parliament. On May 11, just days before the final vote, a massive rally of tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Tbilisi to voice their opposition to the bill.

Why is Georgian Dream seeking a frontal confrontation with civil society? Its founder, oligarch and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, suggested foreign powers were conspiring against the party during a rally on April 29. At that event, where attendees were largely government employees bused to the site, Ivanishvili claimed that “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.” The West, he added, represents the “global war party.”

Anti-government protests in front of the Georgian Parliament, in support of stronger EU ties.

A recent anti-government protest in front of the Georgian Parliament, in support of stronger ties to the European Union. Image: Shutterstock

This foreign agent law is playing out in a regional debate about the prospect of European Union membership among former Soviet nations. Georgia, which sits beside Russia and Ukraine on the Black Sea, became an official candidate to join the EU in December 2023. According to one recent survey, over 80% of Georgians want to join. The EU is also Georgia’s biggest trade partner, and Georgia signed a free trade agreement with the EU in 2014. The “Russian Law,” however, could stifle dissent and critical reporting, and make it easier for the ruling Georgian Dream Party to act unilaterally to strengthen ties with Russia instead.

On the domestic front, Georgian Dream is facing national elections in October, and its victory isn’t guaranteed. Ramishvili notes: “The main reason they started the bill now is that they want no one in Georgia to cover how they try to keep the power.” Studio Monitor, which frequently partners with the BBC, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and other investigators, regularly exposes the party’s alleged corruption, favoritism, and nepotism. She adds: “If independent media can’t work in Georgia, people will not have a space to speak of their problems and inform themselves, and will have no right to know what’s going on in the country where they live.”

This is hardly an isolated case. Like most countries in the post-Soviet sphere, Georgia’s media landscape is dominated by state- and oligarch-run media, while a handful of independent investigative centers, TV stations, and online media expose and interrogate the actions of the ruling powers.

Meanwhile, payback for investigative journalism is intensifying across the region. A number of Russia’s independent journalists have been forced to flee their home countries — many to Tbilisi after the Ukraine war began — along with being physically assaulted, imprisoned, and assassinated. In recent months Azerbaijan’s ruling government imprisoned 13 independent journalists, alleging that they engaged in  “currency smuggling” just by receiving foreign donations. In Kyrgyzstan this year, 11 journalists from Temirov Live were jailed in January on charges of inciting public unrest, while its founder was forced into exile. Soon after, the operating entity of the Kyrgyz online investigative outlet Kloop was liquidated by court order, with prosecutors even introducing testimony from psychiatrists claiming that negative information uncovered by its critical reporting was “upsetting” and “affected people’s mental health.”

Whatever the geopolitical motives behind the “foreign agents” bill, Georgian Dream is promoting a divisive law that would imperil the press freedom necessary for robust watchdog journalism. This, in turn, would likely make it much tougher to report on politicians and oligarchs. Investigative journalists are on the front line of this battle for accountability and transparency in the Black Sea region, and we can’t afford to lose.

Nina Gagua, co-founder of iFactNino Gagua is co-founder of the investigative center, iFact, in Tbilisi, Georgia.




Mark Lee HunterMark Lee Hunter is a founding member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network and an advisor to the Investigative Media Lab at the University of Georgia.

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