23 мая 2024

What will the law on “foreign agents” be like and does something similar exist in the USA? Here’s everything you need to know about it

How do American and Georgian laws on “foreign agents” differ? Why is this law dangerous for the media and NGOs, and why is it referred to as the “Russian” law?

Paper Kartuli answers the main questions about the “transparency of foreign influence” law, which has led to ongoing protests in Georgia.

What is the core purpose of the law on “foreign agents?”

According to the document, the law aims to ensure transparency of foreign influence by requiring organizations conducting the interests of a foreign power to register. These organizations’ activities will not be restricted after registration.

What kind of organizations are those “conducting the interests of a foreign power?”

The law targets non-commercial organizations and media outlets that receive more than 20% of their annual income from foreign individuals or entities. This includes funds, associations, corporations, unions, and governmental bodies. The type of work the NGO does—whether it’s public oversight, education, healthcare, environmental protection, or aiding homeless animals—does not matter.

Government organizations, sports federations of Georgia, and NGOs involved in blood and blood component collection and testing are excluded from the designation of “foreign agents.”

How will the law work?

According to the law, NGOs and media outlets meeting the criteria of “foreign agents” must register independently through the Ministry of Justice of Georgia as “organizations conducting the interests of a foreign power.” If the law is enacted, this registration process will be free of charge. Once registered as “organizations conducting the interests of a foreign power,” they are obligated to annually submit financial declarations to the authorities.

Authorities also will have the right to conduct inspections of organizations to identify “foreign agents.”

Non-registration or failure to submit a financial declaration will incur a fine of 25,000 lari. Violating the registration process carries a penalty of 10,000 lari, and for subsequent violations or non-payment of previous fines, a penalty of 20,000 lari is levied. Criminal liability is not applicable in these cases.

Do the authorities’ claims that the law is similar to American and European ones hold true?

The authorities, in the introductory note to the bill, reference several countries with existing laws on foreign influence, including the USA, Australia, and Israel.

In 2023, shortly after the first introduction of the bill on “foreign agents” to parliament, the US State Department expressed concern about the document. According to a comment from the American foreign policy agency, “these statements that the Georgian draft law is based on FARA – these statements are patently false. And in fact, this draft legislation appears to be based on similar Russian and Hungarian legislation, not on FARA or any other American legislation.”

FARA (Foreign Agents Registration Act) was enacted in 1938, with the formal goal of protecting Americans from Nazi propaganda. It remains in effect today.

Under FARA, individuals and entities acting in the interests of foreign countries must disclose their financial and political relationships with those states. Violations of FARA can result in fines or imprisonment for up to 5 years.

American lawyer Ted Jonas, who has lived in Georgia for over 30 years, points out a crucial difference between the Georgian bill and FARA. While FARA defines an “agent of a foreign principal” as “person who acts as an agent, representative, employee, or servant, or otherwise acts at the order, request, or under the direction or control of a ‘foreign principal’,” the Georgian bill solely considers receiving foreign funding as the criterion for an organization acting in the interests of a foreign state.

Furthermore, FARA specifies that the following cannot be considered foreign agents:

  •  Humanitarian aid organizations;
  • Individuals and organizations engaged in religious, educational, academic, scientific, or artistic activities;
  • Media owned by foreign owners whose policies are not controlled by a foreign state.

Such restrictions are absent in the Georgian bill.

Why do protesters call the bill “Russian?”

Protesters and opposition members call the document “Russian” primarily due to its similar discriminatory and repressive potential, as evidenced by more than a decade of the implementation of the “foreign agents” law in Russia.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the lists of Russian “foreign agents” have been rapidly expanding, with individuals being added to the registry. As of April 12, 2024, there were 801 entries in the registry of “foreign agents.”

In Russia, «foreign agents» are prohibited from running for elections, participating in electoral commissions, organizing public events, conducting educational activities, and more. Additionally, in March, a ban on advertising at «foreign agents’» resources was implemented. Essentially, a significant crackdown on the media and civil space has occurred within the country.

The Georgian authorities claim that the law will ensure transparency. Do the media and NGOs have issues with this?

Opponents of the bill argue that the government’s assertion regarding transparency is unfounded. According to lawyer and human rights activist Goga Khatiashvili, the purpose of the law is not to ensure transparency of donor funds but rather to discredit NGOs and the media. Khatiashvili emphasizes that NGOs are already accountable to donors and routinely provide them with detailed reports on every penny spent.

Reporting requirements are established by several regulatory acts, primarily the Approval of the Financial Reporting Standard for Non-Entrepreneurial (Non-Commercial) Legal Entities and the Tax Administration Act. Furthermore, every transaction made by NGOs is reflected in the banking system.

“Our legislation and system fundamentally prevent non-governmental organizations from concealing information. If there are violations in report submissions, the organization is fined and must provide additional documents. It is in the organization’s best interest to ensure reports are complete and accurate,” says Moreta Bobokhidze, a lawyer and human rights defender with the NGO Civil Rights Defenders.

Why don’t NGOs and the media simply register in the foreign agents registry if they have nothing to hide?

The head of the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) Giorgi Kldiashvili, told Paper Kartuli: “Everything we do, we do in the interests of Georgia, and continuing to work under the label of ‘organizations acting in the interests of a foreign state’ is not something we consider possible.” Hundreds of other NGOs and media outlets share this position, declaring a cessation of any cooperation with the authorities until the bill is withdrawn.

Furthermore, Article 8, paragraph 3 of the bill On Transparency of Foreign Influence grants the Ministry of Justice the authority to acquire essential information, including personal data, for monitoring purposes. For NGOs working with vulnerable groups, this poses a serious risk factor. Thus, Tamar Jashi, Tbilisi Pride activist, expressed their concern about it to Paper Kartuli.

Where can the text of the bill be read?

The text of the bill On Transparency of Foreign Influence is published in Georgian on the parliament’s website (access to the website outside Georgia may require a VPN with a server in the country). There you can also read the explanatory note to the document. The translation of the draft law into Russian was published by NewsGeorgia.

Has the law been passed by parliament, meaning it will soon come into force?

The bill, having passed the third reading, will be sent to the president, who has promised to veto it. According to procedure, the president will then propose motivated amendments and additions to the bill and return it to parliament. However, Salome Zurabishvili has stated that she will not engage in any game to improve the bill.

Article 46 of the Constitution of Georgia describes the veto procedures as follows: within 10 days after the third reading, the bill is sent to the president, who then has 2 weeks to issue a veto. If the president does not provide reasoned remarks within this 2-week period, the chairman of parliament will sign and publish the bill within 5 days after the expiration of this period, at which point it will come into force.

Once the law comes into force, NGOs and the media can file a collective lawsuit in the Constitutional Court. During the court’s consideration, the law’s effect may be suspended.

Thus, subsequent procedures related to the “foreign agents” law could extend over a period of several weeks to several months.

Авторы: Бумага
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