USAID Offers Protection to Journalists & NGOs Facing Defamation Lawsuits

By Thalif Deen

The world’s news media — both under authoritarian regimes and democratic governments– continue to come under relentless attacks and political harassment.

“Freedom of the press is the foundation of democracy and justice. It gives all of us the facts we need to shape opinions and speak truth to power. But in every corner of the world, freedom of the press is under attack,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on World Press Freedom Day May 3.

Journalists and media workers, he said, are directly targeted on and offline as they carry out their vital work. They are routinely harassed, intimidated, detained and imprisoned.

At least 67 media workers were killed in 2022 — a 50 per cent increase over the previous year. Nearly three quarters of women journalists have experienced violence online, and one in four have been threatened physically, according to the UN.

But there is also an increase in non-physical attacks, including defamation lawsuits against media organizations challenging their legitimate right to free expression.

The Washington-based US Agency for International Development (USAID) last week launched Reporters Shield, a new membership program that protects journalists around the world– who report in the public interest– from defamation lawsuits and legal threats.

Established as a U.S.-based nonprofit organization by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, Reporters Shield has been described as “a first-of-its-kind global program that defends investigative reporting around the world from legal threats meant to silence critical voices”.

USAID, which has a long history of fostering the growth of independent media across the world, plans to work with Congress to contribute up to $9 million in seed funding for this groundbreaking new program to support media outside the United States, according to a May 2 press release.

In a statement released last week, USAID said investigative journalists and civil society organizations reporting in the public interest are increasingly facing lawsuits that aim to harass and silence them by burdening them with the cost and time of a legal defense until they abandon their stories or go out of business entirely.

Reporters Shield will help to reduce these risks through training and pre-publication review, as well as funding legal representation to fight lawsuits and other legal actions meant to intimidate and financially burden reporters.

In order to keep the program sustainable, member organizations participating in Reporters Shield will pay reasonable annual fees that are based on a variation of factors, including location of the outlet and how many stories they produce a year.

“To be considered for membership in Reporters Shield, an organization must be legally registered and focus primarily in news, public interest, and/or investigative reporting; publish reporting in print and/or online; have non-profit status or transparent ownership; be independent from political, commercial, or other undue influence or interference; and have editorial independence and adhere to professional editorial standards”.

Reporters Shield is accepting applications worldwide and will be reviewing them in a phased approach, with some regions receiving benefits in the coming months, and others added later this year and in 2024.

Interested organizations can find more information and apply for membership by visiting

The development of Reporters Shield has been supported by the generous pro bono legal support of the law firms of Proskauer, Primmer Piper Eggleston & Cramer PC, and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP.

Mandeep S. Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations (CSOs), told IPS “these are hard times for media freedoms due to disinformation and attacks on civic space spurred by deepening authoritarianism, denigration of democracy through populism and consolidation of wealth by oligarchs”.

Uncovering serious human rights violations and high-level corruption, he pointed out, is becoming increasingly dangerous and costly for investigative journalists and civil society activists.

When few companies are ready to sign the Anti- Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) pledge and crafty politicians are busy undermining the independence of judiciaries, this initiative comes at a critical time,” he declared.

According to the Anti-SLAPP pledge by Global Citizen, an international education and advocacy organization, strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, are not a legitimate business strategy for companies.

“The private sector thrives in functioning democratic societies, where the right to freedom of expression is a respected bedrock principle and where everyone can express their views without fear of intimidation or reprisal”.

“Lawsuits and legal tactics meant to silence civil organizations and human rights defenders aren’t just bad for societies, they’re also damaging to companies. When companies stifle free expression, they limit their ability to manage risk related to their operations and global supply chains.”

As companies that are committed to operating in societies where people are able to exercise fundamental rights, said Global Citizen, “we pledge to: define Strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, as both lawsuits and legal tactics that are designed to silence critics and abridge citizens’ ability to exercise fundamental rights.”

— Refrain from engaging in SLAPPs against human rights and environmental defenders and civil society organizations that support affected rights-holders.

— Recognize the critical role that civil society organizations and human rights defenders play in creating a profitable enabling environment for the private sector.

— Encourage partners and suppliers within our value chain to refrain from engaging in SLAPPs to silence legitimate activism.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists

Credit: Shutterstock
On World Press Freedom Day 2023, UNESCO will organize a special anniversary event at UN headquarters in New York, marking the 30 years since the UN General Assembly’s decision proclaiming an international day for press freedom.

This anniversary edition of World Press Freedom Day will include a full day of activities at the UN Headquarters on 2nd May. Partners from the media, academia, and civil society are invited to organize events in New York and around the world centered on this year’s theme.

By Audrey Azoulay
PARIS, May 1 2023 (IPS)

Freedom of the press is the cornerstone of democratic society. Without a debate of ideas, without verified facts, without diversity of perspectives, democracy is a shadow of itself; and World Press Freedom Day was established to remind us of this.

For the international community, it is first and foremost a question of combating the impunity that still surrounds crimes of which journalists are victims, with nearly nine out of ten murders of journalists going unpunished.

This, for instance, is the objective of the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the issue of Impunity, which UNESCO has been leading for ten years. It is also about ensuring that independent media can continue to exist.

With the digital revolution, the information landscape and its modes of production and distribution have been radically disrupted, jeopardizing the viability of independent professional media.

To ensure that information remains a common good in the digital age, our Member States, through the Windhoek +30 Declaration of 2021, have undertaken to support independent journalism, ensure greater transparency of online platforms, and develop media and information literacy.

We will not be able to do this without the actors who now have significant control over access to information: the digital platforms. This is why UNESCO held the “Internet for Trust” conference in February, as an essential step towards the development of principles to regulate digital platforms.

This is a fundamental issue, because it involves both protecting freedom of expression and fighting disinformation and hate speech. Thirty years after the first World Press Freedom Day, we can see how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

So, let this Day be an opportunity to renew our commitment, within international organizations, to defending journalists and, through them, press freedom.

Footnote: As the UN Organization responsible for defending and promoting freedom of expression, media independence and pluralism, UNESCO leads the organization of World Press Freedom Day each year.

This year’s celebration will be particularly special: the international community will mark the 30th anniversary of the proclamation of the Day by the United Nations General Assembly.

It will serve as an occasion to take stock of the global gains for press freedom secured by UNESCO and its partners in the past decades, as well as underline the new risks faced in the digital age.

IPS UN Bureau


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Audrey Azoulay is Director-General of UNESCO Source

A Proposal for a UN Freedom of Information Act Never Got Off the Ground

Credit: UNESCO Attribution 3.0 IGO
Celebrated every 3rd of May, this year’s theme for World Press Freedom Day will be “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a Driver for all other Human Rights.”  

By Thalif Deen

The United Nations has consistently been a vociferous advocate of freedom of the press – and, most importantly, the right of journalists to report without fear of reprisals.

But regrettably, the UN is also one of most opaque institutions where transparency is never the norm.

Journalists, rarely if ever, were able to get any on-the-record comments or reactions from ambassadors, diplomats and senior UN officials because most of them follow the advice given to Brits during war-time censorship in the UK: “Be like Dad, Keep Mum”.

As Winston Churchill once remarked: “Diplomacy is the art of telling people ‘to go to hell’ in such a way that they ask for directions.”

But as a general rule, most ambassadors and diplomats did not tell us either to go to hell or heaven– but avoided all comments on politically-sensitive issues with the standard non-excuse: ”Sorry, we have to get clearance from our capital”.

But that “clearance” from their respective foreign ministries never came. Still, it was hard to beat a response from a tight-lipped Asian diplomat who told me: “No comment” – and as an after-thought, added: “And Don’t Quote Me on That”.

And most senior UN officials, on the other hand, never had even the basic courtesy or etiquette to respond to phone calls or email messages even with an acknowledgment. The lines of communications were mostly dead.

When I complained to the media-savvy Shashi Tharoor, a former UN Under-Secretary-General, head of the one-time Department of Public Information (DPI) and a prolific author, he was explicit in his response when he said that every UN official – “from an Under-Secretary-General to a window-washer”—has the right to express an opinion in his or her area of expertise.

The US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which dates back to 1967, has provided the public and mostly the press in the United States the right to request access to records from any federal agency—and has been described as “the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government”.

As a result, some of the newspaper scoops and insider information in the US mainstream media have come following requests from American journalists under the FOIA.

But a longstanding proposal for a FOIA at the United Nations has failed to get off the ground due largely to the inaction by the 193-member General Assembly, the UN’s highest policy making body, resulting in the lack of transparency in the inner workings of the UN and its Secretariat.

So has the proposal for a UN Special Envoy to deal with safety of journalists—dead on arrival (DOA).

Andreas Bummel, Executive Director, Democracy Without Borders, told IPS: the UN is an institution that exercises public authority directly and indirectly with over 30,000 working in the Secretariat (plus the UN system worldwide).

“As such, it needs to be accountable not only to its member states but to citizens and the public at large.

Establishing a proper freedom of information procedure at the UN will be an important tool to enhance this, declared Bummel, co-author of “A World Parliament: Governance and Democracy in the 21st Century.”

Martin S. Edwards, Professor and Chair, School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in the US, told IPS: “I must admit I don’t know the legal angles here. This having been said, it’s pretty clear to me that the only way forward for the UN in an era of political division is greater transparency”

Greater efforts to “tell your story better” are not enough. You can’t advocate for “effective, accountable, and inclusive” institutions at the national level without it, within the UN system too. Things like access to information are an essential step in that direction, he added.

In the US, federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.

In Australia, the legislation is known as Right2Know; in Bangladesh, the Right to Information (RTI) provides resources for those seeking to file a request with government agencies; in Japan, the Citizens’ Centre for Information Disclosure offers help to those interested in filing requests; in India, the Right to Information: a Citizen Gateway is the portal for RTI; Canada’s Access to Information Act came into force in 1983 and Kenya’s Access to Information Act was adopted in August 2016, according to the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD).

And Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 has been described as the “oldest in the world.”

While FOIA covers access to federal government agency records, the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) guarantees access to state and local government records. All 50 states in the US also have freedom of information laws that govern access to these documents, though the provisions of the state laws vary considerably.

The Paris-based UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is mandated to oversee press freedom, defines Freedom of Information (FOI) as the right to access information held by public bodies.

According to UNESCO, the FOI is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, as recognized by Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946, as well as by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which states that the fundamental right of freedom of expression encompasses the freedom to “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

FOI has also been enshrined as a “freedom of expression” in other major international instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and the American Convention on Human Rights (1969).

In an interview with IPS back in 2017, Samir Sanbar, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General who headed the one-time Department of Public Information (DPI), said the right to information is an integral part of U.N. principles.

But providing that right—even the basic information available in the public domain– has been stymied both by member states and the UN bureaucracy, he added.

He pointed out that the need to “inform the peoples” is implicitly indicated in the UN Charter.

But implementing it was “a basic issue I had experienced throughout my work, with both certain government officials– including those publicly claiming open channels– and many senior U.N. Secretariat colleagues”.

Those who believed “Information is Power” were very hesitant, to what they perceived was sharing their authority with a wider public, said Sanbar who served under five different UN Secretaries-General.

“It was most evident that when I launched the now uncontested website, a number of powerful Under-Secretaries-General (USGs) and Permanent Representatives cautioned me against “telling everyone what was happening” (in the UN system) and refused to authorize any funds.”

“I had to raise a team of DPI volunteers in my office, operating from within the existing budget, to go ahead and eventually offer computers loaned from an outside source, to certain delegations to realize it was more convenient for them to access news releases than having to send one of their staffers daily to the building to collect material from the third floor.“

Eventually, everyone joined in, and the site became one of the ten best official sites worldwide.

“We had a similar difficulty in prodding for International World Press Freedom Day through the General Assembly. It seems that even those with the best of intentions– since delegates represent official governments that view free press with cautious monitoring– are usually weary of opening a potentially vulnerable issue,” said Sanbar, author of the book “Inside the U.N. in a Leaderless World’.

This article contains excerpts from a 2021 book on the United Nations—largely a collection of political anecdotes– titled “No Comment – and Don’t Quote Me on That,” available on Amazon. The link to Amazon via the author’s website follows:

IPS UN Bureau Report


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Fiji: Deeper Democracy or Continuing Danger?

Credit: Pita Simpson/Getty Images

By Andrew Firmin
LONDON, Apr 28 2023 (IPS)

It’s been a time of significant change in Fiji following the country’s December 2022 election. A close vote was followed by the formation of a new coalition government. Frank Bainimarama was out as prime minister after 16 years, replaced by Sitiveni Rabuka.

Rabuka was hardly a new face, having been prime minister in the 1990s, and both Bainimarama and Rabuka had previously led military coups. For Fiji’s civil society, the question was whether this political shift would bring improvements in civic and democratic freedoms. Bainimarama’s government had shown itself increasingly intolerant of dissent.

People who criticised the government were subjected to harassment and arrest. In July 2021, nine opposition politicians were arrested, questioned and accused of inciting unrest. In 2020, opposition party offices were raided by police in response to social media posts critical of the government.

The outgoing government used the Public Order Act to restrict protests, including by opposition parties. The Fiji Trade Union Congress was repeatedly denied permission to march and its leader charged with public order offences. Police often used excessive force against protests, with impunity. There was, in short, much room for improvement.

Positive steps on media freedom

The most encouraging move so far is the repeal of the Media Industry Development Act. This law, passed under the Bainimarama government, established a highly interventionist government-controlled media regulator. Journalists could be jailed for two years and media outlets slapped with heavy fines if their reporting was judged to go against the national or public interest – vague terms open to broad interpretation. This encouraged self-censorship.

The law was one of the main reasons Fiji was the lowest-ranking Pacific Island nation on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Media freedom constraints came from the top, with the government favouring state-aligned media, including by withholding advertising from more critical outlets.

Now the media and civil society will be looking for the government to go further. A sedition law that can bring extensive jail sentences remains in need of reform. And beyond this, the government needs to actively support the development of independent Fijian media, including through the fairer distribution of ad spending.

The new government has also moved to rebuild relationships with trade unions. In February it confirmed it would re-establish an effective tripartite forum that brings together government, trade unions and employers; its predecessor was accused of not taking this seriously. The new government has said it will bring to an end the harassment, intimidation and arrest of union leaders. Unions will work to hold the government to these promises.

A fall from grace

These changes have come against a backdrop of continuing political polarisation. It’s been quite the journey for Bainimarama since losing power. In February he was suspended from parliament. This came after he used his first speech as leader of the opposition to deliver a stinging critique of Fiji’s president, Ratu Wiliame Katonivere.

In his speech, Bainimarama appealed to the military to ‘not forsake their constitutional role’. This seemed a coded plea for military intervention: the 2013 constitution, introduced by Bainimarama, gives the military the power to intervene to ensure the ‘safety and security of the country’. When he was still prime minister, as post-electoral negotiations were taking place, Bainimarama had ordered the military onto the streets.

Bainimarama’s response to his suspension was to resign from parliament. But he made clear his intent to stay politically active and remains party leader.

Last month Bainimarama was charged with abuse of office while prime minister. He was granted bail after pleading not guilty. He’s alleged to have intervened to stop a police investigation into alleged corruption at the University of the South Pacific. Police Commissioner Sitiveni Tukaituraga Qiliho, currently suspended, is also charged with abuse of office for the same case and has also pleaded not guilty.

Dangers ahead

The obvious danger is that Bainimarama, no longer confined by parliamentary niceties, could seek to stir unrest through sensationalism and disinformation, which could offer a pretext for his supporters in the military to intervene. The spectre of military rule is never far away in Fiji. There have been four coups since independence in 1970. Rabuka led two in 1987 and then Bainimarama headed coups in 2000 and 2006. In this context, it’s ominous that in January the head of the army expressed concern about ‘sweeping changes’ being introduced by the new government.

On all occasions the pretext for coups has been ethnic unrest, with Fiji’s population broadly divided between Indigenous Fijians and people of Asian heritage. Civil society and the international community will need to stay alert to any attempts to foster division and mobilise one population group against the other.

At the same time the new government needs to beware of fuelling narratives that it’s being vindictive towards Bainimarama and his party. There’s a need to ensure that diverse points of view can be aired – including from the new opposition. As a former coup leader, Rabuka needs to keep proving his commitment to democracy.

What happens next in Fiji is of concern not just for Fijians but for the region, since the country is a major hub and host of key regional institutions. China and the USA, along with Australia, are trying to build closer relations with Fiji as they compete for influence among Pacific Island nations. So whether Fiji becomes more democratic and opens up civic space matters.

In these early days of the new government there can be no room for complacency. Fiji’s civil society must be supported and enabled as a vital democratic force. And it must keep on engaging constructively to ensure that government promises are followed by deeds that advance rights.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


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CIVICUS Report Exposes a Civil Society Under Attack

The State of Civil Society report from CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance which was officially launched on March 30, 2023, exposes the gross violations of civic space. Credit CIVICUS

The State of Civil Society report from CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance which was officially launched on March 30, 2023, exposes the gross violations of civic space. Credit CIVICUS

By Joyce Chimbi
NAIROBI, Mar 31 2023 (IPS)

As conflict and crises escalate to create human emergencies that have displaced over 100 million people worldwide, civil society’s vital role of advocating for victims and monitoring human rights cannot be over-emphasised.

The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize award to activists and organisations in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine for working to uphold human rights in the thick of conflict underpins this role.

Yet this has not stopped gross violations of civic space as exposed by the State of Civil Society report from CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, which was officially launched on March 30, 2023.

“This year’s report is the 12th in its annual published series, and it is a critical look back on 2022. Exploring trends in civil society action, at every level and in every arena, from struggles for democracy, inclusion, and climate justice to demands for global governance reform,” said Ines Pousadela from CIVICUS.

The report particularly highlights the many ways civil society comes under attack, caught in the crossfire and or deliberately targeted. For instance, the Russian award winner, the human rights organisation Memorial, was ordered to close in the run-up to the war. The laureate from Belarus, Ales Bialiatski, received a 10-year jail sentence.

Mandeep Tiwana stressed that the repression of civic voices and actions is far from unique. In Ethiopia, “activists have been detained by the state. In Mali, the ruling military junta has banned activities of CSOs that receive funding from France, hampering humanitarian support to those affected by conflict. In Italy, civil society groups face trial for rescuing migrants at sea.”

Ines Pousadela at the launch of the CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report. Credit: Joyce Chimbi/IPS

Ines Pousadela at the launch of the CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report. Credit: Joyce Chimbi/IPS

Spanning over six chapters titled responding to conflict and crisis, mobilising for economic justice, defending democracy, advancing women’s and LGBTQI+ rights, sounding the alarm on the climate emergency and urging global governance reform, the analysis presented by the report draws from an ongoing analysis initiative, CIVICUS Lens.

On responding to conflict and crisis, Oleksandra Matviichuk from the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine spoke about the Russian invasion and the subsequent “unprecedented levels of war crimes against civilians such as torture and rape. And, a lack of accountability despite documented evidence of crimes against civilians.”

Bhavani Fonseka, from the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Sri Lanka, addressed the issue of mobilising for economic justice and how Sri Lanka captured the world’s attention one year ago through protests that start small in neighbourhoods and ultimately led to the President fleeing the country.

Launched in January 2022, CIVICUS Lens is directly informed by the voices of civil society affected by and responding to the major issues and challenges of the day.

Through this lens, a civil society perspective of the world as it stands in early 2023 has emerged: one plagued by conflict and crises, including democratic values and institutions, but in which civil society continues to strive to make a crucial difference in people’s lives.

On defending democracy, Amine Ghali of the Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center in Tunisia spoke about the challenge of removing authoritarian regimes, making significant progress in levels of democracy only for the country to regress to authoritarianism.

“It starts with the narrative that democracy is not delivering; let me have all the power so that I can deliver for you. But they do not deliver. All they do is consolidate power. A government with democratic legitimacy demolishing democracy is where we are in Tunisia,” he said.

Erika Venadero from the National Network of Diverse Youth, Mexico, spoke about the country’s journey that started in the 1960s towards egalitarian marriages. Today, same-sex marriages are provided for in the law.

On global governance reforms, Ben Donaldson from UNA-UK spoke about global governance institutional failure and the need to improve what is working and reform what is not, with a special focus on the UN Security Council.

“It is useful to talk about Ukraine and the shortcomings of the UN Security Council. A member of the UN State Council is unable to hold one of its members accountable. There are, therefore, tensions at the heart of the UN. The President of Ukraine and many others ask, what is the UN for if it cannot stop the Ukraine invasion?”

Baraka, a youthful climate activist and sustainability consultant in Uganda, spoke about ongoing efforts to stop a planned major pipeline project which will exacerbate the ongoing climate crisis, affecting lives and livelihoods.

His concerns and actions are in line with the report findings that “civil society continues to be the force sounding the alarm on the triple threat of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. Urging action using every tactic available, from street protest and direct action to litigation and advocacy in national and global arenas.”

But in the context of pressures on civic space and huge challenges, the report further finds that “civil society is growing, diversifying and widening its repertoire of tactics.”

Moving forward, the report highlights 10 ideas, including an urgent need for a broad-based campaign to win recognition of civil society’s vital role in conflict and crisis response as well as greater emphasis by civil society and supportive states on protecting freedom of peaceful assembly.

Additionally, the need for civil society to work with supportive states to take forward plans for UN Security Council reform and proposals to open up the UN and other international institutions to much greater public participation and scrutiny.

In all, strengthening and enhancing the membership and reach of transnational civil society networks to enable the rapid deployment of solidarity and support when rights come under attack was also strongly encouraged.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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Georgia: Danger Averted, for Now

Cedit: Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images

By Andrew Firmin
LONDON, Mar 17 2023 (IPS)

Georgian civil society can breathe a sigh of relief. A proposed repressive law that would have severely worsened the space for activism has been shelved – for now. But the need for vigilance remains.

Russia-style law

A proposed ‘foreign agents’ law would have required civil society organisations (CSOs) and media outlets in Georgia receiving over 20 per cent of funding from outside the country to register as a ‘foreign agent’. Non-compliance would have been punishable with fines and even jail sentences.

The law’s proponents, including Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, claimed it was modelled on one passed in the USA in 1938. The US law was introduced to check the insidious spread of Nazi propaganda in the run-up to the Second World War, and wasn’t targeted at CSOs.

For civil society it was clear the source of inspiration was much more recent and closer to home: Russia’s 2012 law, since extended several times, which allows the state to declare a ‘foreign agent’ any person or organisation it judges to be under foreign influence. The law has been used extensively to stigmatise civil society and independent media. It’s been imitated by other repressive states looking for ways to stifle civil society.

In Georgia, as in Russia, the ‘foreign agent’ terminology is deeply suggestive of espionage and treachery. Any organisation it’s applied to can expect to be instantly viewed with suspicion. This meant the law would stigmatise CSOs and media organisations.

Alarmingly, the proposed law was no isolated event: the government has been ramping up the rhetoric about groups ‘opposing the interests of the country’ and the need to save Georgia from foreign influence.

The initial proposal for the law came from a populist political faction, People’s Power, that split from the ruling party, Georgian Dream, but works in coalition with it. People’s Power has a track record of criticising foreign funding, particularly from the USA, which it claims undermines Georgia’s sovereignty, and has accused CSOs and the main opposition party of being US agents.

CSOs insist they already adhere to high standards of accountability and transparency, making any further regulations unnecessary. They point to the vital role civil society has played over the years in establishing democracy in Georgia, providing essential services the state fails to offer and helping to introduce important human rights protections.

This work necessarily requires financial support, and since there are few resources within Georgia, that means foreign funding, including from the European Union (EU) and other international bodies – sources the government is also happy to receive funding from.

The power of protest

The scale of the reaction took the government by surprise. Many states around the world have enacted repressive civil society laws, and it’s often hard to get the public to take an interest. But the issue cut through because of the larger concerns many people have about Russian influence, heightened by the war on Ukraine.

Russia is an ever-present issue in Georgian politics. The two countries went to war in 2008, and two breakaway parts of Georgia – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – claim autonomy and receive heavy Russian support. Georgian Dream, founded by billionaire business tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, has an official policy of pragmatism towards Russia while also cultivating links with the EU – but opponents accuse it and People’s Power of being too close to Russia.

Many see the country’s future as lying within a democratic Europe and fear returning to Russia’s domination. This made the proposed law about a fundamental question of national identity.

That’s why, when parliament started discussing the bill in early March, thousands gathered over several nights, many waving Georgian and EU flags and chanting ‘no to the Russian law’.

When the bill passed its hurried first reading it sparked some violent clashes. Some people threw stones and the police responded disproportionately with teargas, stun grenades, pepper spray and water cannon. But people kept protesting and the government feared the situation could spiral out of its control. So, at least for the time being, it backed down.

What next?

The immediate threat may have passed, but it isn’t game over. The government hasn’t said the law was a bad idea, merely that it failed to explain it properly to the public and withdrew it to reduce confrontation.

Georgia was one of three countries that applied to join the EU following the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While the other two, Moldova and Ukraine, were quickly granted EU candidate status, Georgia wasn’t.

The EU cited the need for both economic and political reforms. This includes measures to reduce corruption, organised crime and oligarchic influence, improve the protection of human rights and enable civil society to play a stronger role in decision-making processes. In introducing the proposed law, the government took steps further away from the EU and made clear it doesn’t trust civil society.

This raises concerns the bill could return in some revised form, or other restrictions on civil society could be introduced. In numerous countries, the kind of verbal attacks on civil society recently made by the government have led to restrictions.

But Garibashvili should be more attentive to the message of the protests. By taking to the streets, people told the government they’re paying attention and disagree with its current direction – and forced it to back down. Civil society has shown its power, and deserves to be listened to rather than treated with suspicion.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


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