(NEW YORK)—PEN America today voiced alarm over a proposed new law in Georgia that would hand unfettered power to the government to investigate and monitor civil society and news organizations. PEN America said the proposed law runs counter to domestic and international human rights standards and called on members of the Parliament who introduced the proposed Transparency of Foreign Influence law to retract it.

“The draft law on Transparency of Foreign Influence is a threat to any civil society organization or media outlet operating in Georgia,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, inaugural director of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center. “In the name of ‘transparency,’ the Ministry of Justice would be given seemingly unfettered power to investigate and monitor organizations, codifying government intimidation of writers, activists, journalists, and other civil society members—an especially worrying prospect for those who express opinions and policy positions that are critical of the ruling party.”

The draft law introduces new definitions for a “foreign power” and “agents of foreign influence.” Among other provisions, the draft law requires non-commercial entities that receive more than 20 percent of their income from a foreign power to register under a “Foreign Influence Agents Registry” and submit annual financial declarations. The draft law allows the Georgian Ministry of Justice to investigate and obtain documents from entities it believes would belong on the registry, collecting an unspecified array of personal information. If an entity fails to register, it could face fines of up to 25,000 Georgian Lari (9,400 US Dollars). The Ministry of Justice would also be authorized to conduct monitoring of these entities, initiated on its own discretion or after receiving a submission from any individual including anonymous sources.

Major Georgian government officials have voiced their opposition to the draft law, citing human rights violations and its similarities to Russia’s “foreign agent” law. Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili stated that the draft law brings Georgia “closer to the vicious model of Russia” and that her office “cannot support such legislation.” Georgia’s Public Defender’s Office also stated its opposition to the draft law, citing violations of freedoms of expression, association, and privacy as well as its concerning similarities to Russian and Hungarian laws. In an open letter, a large coalition of Georgian media, civil society groups, and human rights organizations have stated their opposition to the draft law, indicating concerns that it foreshadows a crackdown on civil society as Russian law facilitates.

The members of Parliament who introduced the legislation belong to a faction of the ruling Georgian Dream party, while also identifying themselves as representatives of the movement “People’s Power.” Referring to the two parties, the Georgian Dream Chairperson has stated that “there is no significant difference between us.” In a December 2022 press statement, the initiators of the draft law stated that their intention is to regulate all relevant non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding.

Members of the ruling Georgian Dream party, however, supported the draft law, claiming that it is similar to legislation in the United States, a view that US State Department spokesperson Ned Price has rejected as “patently false.” The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (INCL) and European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL) have also refuted these claims in their analysis of the draft law.

Gerntholtz stated: “This draft law is straight out of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook and violates both domestic and international human rights principles. We urge the initiators of the draft law to respect Georgian peoples’ rights to freedom of expression and call on them to retract their proposal immediately.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057