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The Troubling March of “Foreign Agents” Laws

A group of protestors holding up signs
Protesters hold up signs and flags in opposition to a “foreign agents” bill in Tbilisi, Georgia, on March 7, 2023. © AFP/Getty

In May 2024, hundreds of thousands of people in Georgia massed on the streets of the country’s capital, Tbilisi, braving water cannon, tear gas, arrest, and assault in some of the country’s largest protests in history. The outpouring of public anger erupted as lawmakers of the ruling party prepared to pass a new “law on transparency of foreign influence.”

The legislation requires nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media outlets which receive more than 20 percent of their funding from foreign sources to publicly register as “organizations serving the interests of foreign power,” and conduct sensitive and onerous reporting requirements. Failure to comply can result in heavy fines. Civil society groups have condemned the proposal as a tool to crush critical voices, while U.S. and EU officials are discussing sanctions on members of the ruling Georgian Dream party.

It is a momentous time for politics in Georgia, which is a candidate for European Union membership and is due to hold parliamentary elections at the end of October. But the controversial law is only the latest iteration in a disturbing trend of legislation passed by authoritarian governments aimed at extinguishing independent civil space around the world.

2012: Russia

The measures recently passed by the Georgian parliament have been popularly dubbed by critics “the Russian law” due to its similarity to punitive anti-NGO legislation introduced by the Russian government in 2012 that saw an exodus of independent organizations and media. The term “foreign agent” in Russian evokes pejorative associations with Cold War-era spies and traitors. The law initially targeted NGOs that received foreign funding and required them to submit financial reports. It has since evolved into an extremely arbitrary weapon that can be used against any entity or individual anywhere expressing any kind of opposition to Russian government policy or conduct.

In late 2021 Russia’s oldest human rights group, Memorial International, which worked for decades on exposing atrocities committed during the Stalinist era, was shuttered after being deemed a foreign agent. A year later Memorial was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Responding to amendments tightening the legislation in 2021 the Venice Commission—the top constitutional law body of the 46-member Council of Europe—said of the foreign agents law:

“The designation is more likely to undermine transparency by stigmatizing entities and individuals and misleading the public about their relationship to foreign entities . . . [and] is likely to provoke a climate of distrust, fear and hostility, instead of countering any real threat.”

Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the law has been used to persecute anyone speaking out against the war, which has resulted in almost all independent Russian media outlets being outlawed, liquidated, or forced into exile.

2014: India

India hosts the largest number of NGOs in the world. In September 2020, Amnesty International announced that it had been forced to close its Indian offices and lay off its staff after government abruptly froze the human rights organization’s bank accounts. Insisting that “no laws have been broken,” the rights group said:

“It is a dismal day when a country of India’s stature, a rising global power and a member of the UN Human Rights Council, with a constitution which commits to human rights and whose national human rights movements have influenced the world, so brazenly seeks to silence those who pursue accountability and justice.”

Thousands of civil society groups receiving overseas funding have had their licenses revoked since the 2014 Foreign Contribution Regulation Act was introduced. The Indian government maintains that the law is to promote greater transparency and prevent misuse of funds. But with over 20,000 licenses suspended in the last decade—from tiny groups, to a charity founded by Mother Theresa—critics argue that the law has been weaponized against groups that take alternative views to that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

The law was further tightened in 2020 to clamp down on nonprofits sub-granting to other groups. Coinciding with the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, several organizations reported that the ban was preventing them from distributing oxygen and other vital relief supplies to patients.

2020: Nicaragua

Nicaraguan President Ortega’s security forces lethally suppressed protests in 2018 which he claimed were part of a foreign-backed coup attempt. Two years later, the country’s National Assembly approved a law requiring any citizen working for “governments, companies, foundations, or foreign organizations” to register with the interior ministry, and explain their income and spending. Those that do not register are liable for exorbitant penalties, those registered as “foreign agents” are not permitted to finance or promote any kind of group or cause involved in Nicaraguan politics.

Within a few months the local branch of writers’ organization PEN International announced it was closing, along with the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation which had campaigned on freedom of expression issues for several decades. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights denounced the legislation, claiming that it was designed “to scare Nicaraguans, with a view to restricting freedom of expression.”

2024: Kyrgyzstan

Once widely regarded as a budding democracy compared to its authoritarian neighbors in central Asia, Kyrgyz civil society organizations were dismayed in March 2024 after lawmakers adopted legislation that will redefine local NGOs engaged in “political” activity and receiving funding from overseas as “foreign representatives.” The definition of “political” is so broadly defined that it could include a very wide range of activities and some of the cumbersome conditions imposed on organizations include allowing officials to sit in on meetings and events.

A coalition of international human rights groups voiced alarm that the law is so ambiguously drafted that NGOs even raising awareness on issues from minority rights to the environment could fall foul. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that the law “would lead to legitimate public advocacy, human rights monitoring and reporting, and discussion of matters of public interest being seriously stifled.”

United States?

Several governments listed above have sought to justify their various punitive laws by suggesting they are comparable to U.S. legislation dating back to the 1930s.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires “certain agents of foreign principals who are engaged in political activities” to register with the Justice Department and periodically disclose their “activities, receipts, and disbursements in support of those activities.” The law was enacted on the eve of the Second World War and largely aimed at targeting Nazi propaganda and political subversion but is still in force today. It is loosely written and has also been criticized by human rights groups as a potential threat to independent civil society in the United States. However, there are crucial differences including in its intent, which was and is to protect political freedom, rather than to constrain it.

The International Center for Non-Profit Law says that FARA cannot be compared with legislation specifically designed to restrict NGOs and mass media.

“Under FARA, registration is not required simply because one receives funds from a foreign source,” ICNL continued. “Rather, one must be an agent of a foreign principal, including if one acts at the direction and control of a foreign government. Many U.S. NGOs and media organizations receive foreign grants and other support, but the U.S. has not required them to register as foreign agents under FARA. Only about 5 percent of those registered under FARA are nonprofit organizations, mostly branches of foreign political parties.”

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