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Defending press freedom in Georgia as foreign agent bill passes third reading

Joint letter calls on the European Union to react

Georgian political parties supporters protest during a rally against a draft bill on 'foreign agents' in front of the Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, 14 May 2024. EPA-EFE/DAVID MDZINARISHVILI

The International Press Institute (IPI) today joined press freedom and journalists organizations in writing to President of the European Council Charles Michel and EU Ambassador to Georgia Pawel Herczyński, urging them to call on the Georgian government to withdraw the Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence and to guarantee the safety of journalists reporting on the ongoing demonstrations.


President of the European Council Charles Michel

EU Ambassador to Georgia Pawel Herczyński

 

Dear President Michel,

Dear Ambassador Herczyński,

We, the undersigned international press freedom, journalists and human rights organizations, are writing to express our deep concern about recent critical developments in Georgia, where the ruling Georgian Dream party passed the Russian-style foreign agent bill titled “Transparency of Foreign Influence” in its third and final reading on Tuesday May 14.

The Bill was approved with 84 votes in favor and 30 against. According to this legislation, NGOs and independent media receiving more than 20% of their funding from foreign sources would be required to register as organizations “pursuing the interests of foreign power.”

On Sunday, May 19, President Zourabichvili of Georgia vetoed the law, which is widely accepted to be overruled by the Parliament.

International press freedom and human rights organizations have been raising the alarm about this restrictive piece of legislation since it was reintroduced in early April.  On April 11, Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) partners called on the Georgian Dream (GD) ruling party to withdraw the bill, and on May 10, 18 international press freedom organizations sent a letter to Prime Minister Kobakhidze urging him to withdraw the Bill, ensure the safety of journalists, and uphold press freedom.

The Bill provides the authorities with a powerful tool to discredit, pressure, and eventually silence independent voices, thereby threatening press freedom and freedom of expression. The law would not only force independent media and NGOs to be labeled as “organizations pursuing the interests of foreign powers,” it would also empower the Ministry of Justice to conduct monitoring and investigations of these organizations solely on the basis of a written application alleging ties to a “foreign power”, or a decision of the responsible authority within the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry of Justice would have the power to request personal “and confidential” information enabling it to interfere in the activities of independent media outlets and NGOs, disrupt their operations, and undermine their watchdog role. According to the latest changes made by Parliament, the law has been extended to enable the fining organization and of individuals for not submitting the requested data, including personal and confidential information. This comes notwithstanding the GD’s promises that the law would not concern any individuals.

Shortly after the Bill’s reintroduction, journalists have faced intimidation through phone calls, physical and verbal assaults, injuries, and vandalism of their personal items, apartment buildings, offices, and cars. Journalists from online outlets were further barred from Parliament preventing them from reporting the parliamentary debates on the Bill. Based on our data, at least 20 media workers have been physically assaulted, verbally harassed, or detained while covering demonstrations, and we call on you to ensure the incidents are fully investigated and the perpetrators are held accountable. The rise in violent incidents against journalists and the growing hostility against the media indicate the government’s intolerance of criticism and dissent in the country.

The state of press freedom in Georgia has been deteriorating in recent years. Authorities have led smear campaigns against journalists from donor-funded independent media outlets before the reintroduction of this Bill, as well as detained and imprisoned journalists and media workers.

Given the overall sharp democratic decline, increasing hostility of the authorities towards critical voices, and the highly partisan and polarized media scene in Georgia, where a large portion of independent publishers have to rely on donor funding, the enactment of the foreign agent bill could be the final straw for Georgia’s embattled independent media and civil society.

We urge you to call on the Georgian government to fully and unconditionally withdraw this Bill. Furthermore, we urge you to publicly call on the Georgian government to respect the right of journalists to report on the ongoing demonstrations without fear for their safety. Media freedom and freedom of expression are essential pillars of democracy and European values, and should be placed at the center of Georgia’s relationship with the EU.

 

Sincerely,

International Press Institute (IPI)

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

Ossigeno.info (Italy)

Society of Journalists, Warsaw

South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)

Media Diversity Institute Global

Media Diversity Institute