Why the growing number of foreign agent laws around the world is bad for democracy
Published in Political News
After several days of mass protests and clashes between protesters and police in early March, the ruling party of Georgia, a former Soviet state located in the Caucasus, succumbed to pressure and abandoned its proposed laws on foreign agents.
But the uproar and media focus surrounding the Georgian initiative and its demise should not mask a greater trend when it comes to such laws, which target foreign-funded media and nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. Over the past decade they have sprung up in countries across the world. China, India, Cambodia, Australia and Uganda are among the dozens of countries that have “foreign agent” laws on their books.
And a few days after the withdrawal of the Georgian draft laws, Politico reported that the European Union was going to develop its own register of foreign agents.
The impetus for the adoption of these laws in recent years has come from growing international tensions and concerns of national authorities about foreign influence on domestic affairs and public opinion.
The interpretation and application of “foreign agent” laws varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. But they all tend to require the registration and singling out of organizations with foreign funding or “influence.” In many cases, their activities are also curtailed unreasonably.
From my experience representing NGOs classified as foreign agents, such laws have the potential to be used as a tool against groups providing human rights and social assistance or monitoring the transparency of government agencies. Any organization involved in any way in international activities and deemed by a state to be influencing domestic policy or public opinion runs the risk of being recognized as a foreign agent.
The legislation in Georgia would have required nongovernmental organizations and media outlets that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to be included in a special register of “agents of foreign influence.” They would also need to file an annual financial declaration or face a US$9,500 fine.
The authors of the Georgia bill compared it to the American Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, which applies to any “agent of a foreign principal.”
But critics argued that it was a copy of Russia’s more repressive foreign agents law. Human rights groups say the Russian law allows the Kremlin to obstruct the work of NGOs and independent media, as well as to harass dissenting citizens.
Ever since Russia enacted its foreign agents law in 2012, I have seen how authorities use vague legal concepts like “political activity,” “foreign funding” and “foreign influence” to determine whether an NGO is a foreign agent. These vague legal concepts allow executive authorities and courts to interpret the law as broadly as they like and arbitrarily decide who is or isn’t a foreign agent.