Controversial ‘foreign agents law’ is slowly spreading across Europe

Oliver Money-Kyrle lets out a deep sigh. “Let me be clear,” she says thoughtfully. “I don’t think it’s a problem that the media and NGOs should be transparent. It’s good that they are open about how much money they receive and from whom. But we are against vague laws whose sole objective is to criminalize critical organizations. And that’s what this is about.”

The employee of the International Press Institute, a press freedom organization based in the heart of Vienna, has watched this with dismay in recent weeks. Despite protests by tens of thousands of concerned Georgians and a veto by President Salome Zourabishvili, the Georgian parliament passed a controversial law on foreign agents that has put critics under a huge spotlight.

As of last Monday, any NGO, media outlet or individual that receives more than 20 percent of its income from abroad must register as an “agent of foreign influence.” Anyone deemed “undesirable” will then be placed under strict government supervision. Anyone who refuses to share sensitive information can face a fine of between 1,500 and 8,000 euros, or even jail.

Money-Kyrle sees Georgia as another country with authoritarian tendencies that wants to use the label to control critics. “There’s been a lot of attention on Georgia lately,” she says. “But what fewer people know is that many other European leaders also want to introduce such a law.”

First antidemocratic outlier

When Russian President Putin was the first to introduce a foreign agents law in 2012, after a large-scale protest against his appointment, he was still an anti-democratic outlier. The “Russian law”, as Georgians call it, has now become a popular example for European leaders with anti-democratic ambitions.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán decided in 2017 that he wanted “more information” about groups that receive donations from abroad. He forced NGOs that receive more than 23,000 euros a year from foreign donors to register with the court.

In 2020, two conservative ministers in Poland’s PiS government followed suit with a plan for NGOs to record all their foreign income and declare it online. A watered-down version of that plan is still before parliament, although the chances of it passing appear slimmer now that there is a new Polish government.

Things have been going really fast in the last few months. There are rumors in Turkey that President Erdogan wants to present a bill before the end of the administrative year on July 1 to criminalize “foreign agents” and expand the definition of espionage.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico also threatened (before being shot on May 15) to introduce a law on foreign agents. Open protest against that law died down after the attack, from which the prime minister is still recovering. Foreign agent laws also exist outside Europe: in Ethiopia, Egypt, Nicaragua and China.

soviet past

“The law on foreign agents is reminiscent of the Russian one Naroda asked. – enemy of the people – which was used against political opponents during the Stalin period,” notes Katerina Abramova. The Russian journalist works at the investigative platform Meduza, which received the seal in 2021. “‘Agent’ in particular suggests that you work for someone else, that you cannot be trusted.”

The Russian law is the model for other laws on foreign agents, says Professor Natasha Lindstaedt of the University of Essex, who specializes in authoritarian regimes. “In Kyrgyzstan, President Sadyr Zjaparov signed a law in April that is almost entirely copied from its Russian equivalent. “That’s relatively easy: because of their shared Soviet past, they still have similar legal systems.”

But foreign agent laws are also similar in countries outside the former Soviet Union. “They’re all very lazy,” says Lindstaedt. “Then it is about ‘political activities’, but it is not clear what they are. This is done consciously: it gives governments the greatest leeway to use against critics.”

The consequences of the label can be important. In Russia, critical organizations have already received fines and prison sentences. Several independent media outlets, such as Amsterdam-based TV Rain and Abramova’s Meduza, have already decided to leave.

In any case, according to Lindstaedt, the label requires “a lot of time and energy.” Sources no longer dare to speak to organizations that have been labeled “foreign agents.” The media with the seal can no longer find companies that want to advertise with them. “And that’s unfortunate,” says Money-Kyrle, “because it means organizations have to accept money from abroad to survive. And this puts them even more in the government’s crosshairs.”

Meduza also found herself financially marginalized after receiving a tag. “Within two weeks, 70 percent of our advertisers quit,” Abramova says. “Companies are afraid of being associated with something political. That was the only moment we thought: should we close Meduza?”

Transparency or oppression?

Those playing devil’s advocate could argue in favor of introducing foreign agent laws. After all, isn’t transparency a great asset? Don’t we want to understand who influences our politics? Western countries also have similar laws: the United States has a Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires ‘foreign agents’ – who participate in the domestic defense of foreign governments – to register with the US Department of Justice. And in the Netherlands there is a bill – the Law on Transparency of Civil Society Organizations – that requires organizations to register donations of 4,500 euros or more if the donor comes from outside the EU. At first glance, quite similar, let’s face it, to the situation in Georgia, right?

Not entirely, according to Money-Kyrle. Unlike Georgia and Russia, there are no fines or penalties associated with US law, and that would not be the case in the Netherlands either. US legislation is also much more specific, focusing on political lobbyists and making exceptions for many civil society organizations, he summarizes.

“In the United States, organizations do not have to register if they receive money from abroad, only if they act directly in the interest of a foreign government,” he says. “Also: there are many more in the US. checks and balances to ensure that the law is not abused. In his opinion, this is different in Georgia and Russia. “Again: we are all for transparency, especially when it comes to the finances of political lobbyists. But we are against governments that introduce so-called transparency laws to repress critical NGOs.”

The protest works little by little

The question is whether courts or administrators can take action against the emergence of foreign agent laws among authoritarian leaders, especially within the European Union. “A tough one,” Money-Kyrle says. So far, the protest against the foreign agent laws has worked little by little.

Hungarian laws came to the attention of the European Court of Justice in 2020. It declared Orbán’s plans against NGOs “illegal and discriminatory.” In 2021, his government repealed the law, but a new plan was soon introduced that gave his audit office the space to meticulously audit all NGO budgets.

In 2022, the court ruled that these new laws also violate the European Convention. “The court sided with the NGOs and imposed huge fines on Hungary, but the EU has not been able to enforce much,” says Lindstaedt. “Some accuse the EU of allowing leaders to get away with these foreign agent laws.”

In Republika Srpska, the Serbian region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a plan to impose stricter controls on NGOs was recently withdrawn. That happened on the same day that the Georgian parliament passed the law on foreign agents. “But the plan is not finalized yet,” says Money-Kyrle. “This is seen more often, also in Georgia and Hungary: there is a plan, there is resistance, the plan is shelved for a while. But six months later, the government released a new version, with a new, less scary name. But the content is the same.”

Many of the leaders who want such laws are allies of each other, Money-Kyrle notes. “Orbán with his Fidesz party, PiS in Poland and, for example, Janez Jansa when he was still Prime Minister of Slovenia. They have found a common enemy in journalism, trying to present them as servants of foreign states, as traitors. “They find themselves in their populism, in their conservative and especially anti-democratic values, to increase their own power.”

Last resource

Despite all the resistance, many ‘foreign agents’ find a way to continue. The Russian channel TV Rain, which had to flee, continues to broadcast almost daily from a studio in Amsterdam. Russian research platform Meduza started a crowdfunding campaign, found freelancers and experts who helped for free and managed to get through the “first difficult months.”

When the war in Ukraine started in February 2022, Meduza still had to move its activities to Latvia, but they managed to do it there too. “We have no advertisers or money, but we have millions of readers,” editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko previously summarized.

In Kyrgyzstan, the government demanded the closure of investigative platform Kloop in February, but journalists refused to comply and the website remains active. It won’t be long before Kloop is labeled a “foreign agent,” Money-Kyrle says. “But the platform has decided to do nothing with it and continue as long as possible, if possible. “They are resilient.”

The foreign agents law is a last resort for authoritarian leaders to silence their critics, Lindstaedt concludes. “Autocratic leaders can hold elections, they can control state media and create an unfair playing field for the opposition. But there are always NGOs, which emphasize that there is corruption and fraud.”

Precisely this critical attitude makes these groups so important in the fight against authoritarianism, Lindstaedt is convinced. “But leaders realize that too. Only the media, NGOs and activists stand in their way. With these new laws they try to get rid of them. But the organizations will not give up.”

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