Republic of Georgia: Publishing Industry Criticizes ‘Foreign Agents’ Bill

In News by Porter Anderson

The clearance by parliament of Georgia’s ‘foreign agents’ bill in Tbilisi sends it to the president, who has vowed to veto the measure.

Georgians and their supporters gather in Nuremberg on May 7 to protest the Tbilisi parliament’s then-pending action on the ‘foreign agents’ bill. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Oksana Panova

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Book Industry Players Criticize Tbilisi’s ‘Foreign Agents’ Bill
In Tbilisi and in international centers, concern for Georgia’s democratic posture is being expressed this week following Tuesday’s vote in the Georgian parliament on Tuesday (May 14) for what local critics have dubbed “the Russian law.”

Even before the parliamentary nod sent the bill toward the president’s office for approval, PEN Georgia had issued a statement saying, “PEN Georgia along with writers, translators, publishers, and professionals in the field of literature condemns the Georgian government for its attempt to resurrect the Russian ‘foreign agent’ bill.

“By reintroducing the law on ‘foreign agents,’ the Georgian government and the ruling party take treacherous steps against our European future. [If] putting the Russian law into action, the Georgian government voluntarily refuses to seize the historical opportunity of the expansion of the European Union together with Moldova and Ukraine.

“Breaking promises, abandoning friends in trouble, collaborating with the enemy, bowing to the strong, and oppressing the weak never was and never will be a part of Georgian character.”

And in trying to dissuade Georgian lawmakers from making the move they made Tuesday, the Georgian Publishers and Booksellers Association’s statement asserts that the Transparency of Foreign Influence and Registration of Foreign Agents measure, in essence, “is antithetical to the repeatedly confirmed European aspirations of our citizens, and seeks to undermine civil activism and curtail freedom of speech and expression.

“At a time when unity and cooperation are crucial,” the publishers and booksellers say, “the mere discussion of these bills damages the international reputation of Georgia and exacerbates internal tensions. The parliament of Georgia should prioritize collaboration with civil society representatives and professionals from diverse fields, in order to advance necessary reforms for the country’s development and to attain European Union membership candidacy status in a timely manner.

“This is the only way to effectively break free from Russian aggression and influence.”

If approved by the Georgian president, Salome Zourabichvili, any nongovernmental organizations (NGO) and/or media outlets that draw more than 20 percent of their funding from outside the county would have to register as “organizations carrying the interests of foreign power. Those organizations would have to provide the government with financial accounting statements.

The charges of this being a “Russian law” have to do with the 2012 enactment in Moscow of a “foreign agents” measure, described by the Kremlin as a transparency measure—a description now being used by proponents of the bill in Tbilisi. But, as Ivan Nechepurenko reports for The New York Times, “it quickly developed into a heavy-handed tool to stifle and stigmatize anti-Kremlin advocacy groups and media organizations.”

Chytomo

The publishing-industry news medium Chytomo in Ukraine, wrote on Thursday (May 16), “Representatives of the opposition and the civil society in Georgia consider the bill to be aimed at repressing nongovernmental organizations and free media outlets not controlled by the authorities. They emphasize that this law repeats 2012 legislation on ‘agents of foreign influence’ in Russia.”

That Chytomo article carries a statement made by some of Ukraine’s civic organizations—like those said to be tolerated by the new law in Georgia—saying, in part: “Georgia is in danger of the total establishment of a dictatorship and the dismantling of the European integration direction for the state because a bill that has much in common with Russian approaches contradicts the principles and norms of European law and the democratic world.

“Ukrainians do not need to explain who is actually the main beneficiary of these events. It is the Putin regime, which acted in a similar scenario in Ukraine in early 2014.”

A Presidential Veto May Be Ineffective

At the Times, Nechepurenko writes that Zourabichvili, the president, has vowed that she will veto the bill. “But Georgian Dream, the governing party in Georgia since 2012,” he writes, “has enough votes to override her veto.”

At PEN America—which this week went ahead with its annual literary fundraiser, but earlier canceled both its awards ceremony and its World Voices Festival amid pro-Palestinian criticism—Liesel Gerntholtz, who directs the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center, has said, “After making a simple cosmetic change, the Georgian Dream party is again pushing a so-called ‘foreign agent law’ to undermine the essential and independent work of writers, cultural figures, and journalists.

“The infamous draft bill perverts the meaning of the words ‘transparency,’ ‘accountability,’ and ‘security’ to weaken Georgia’s vibrant civil society. Make no mistake, this draft law will codify judicial harassment of independent writers, artists, and cultural figures, among others.”

Those looking for more detail and background on the “foreign agents” bill and its concept, might want to see Wednesday’s (May 15) article by Lili Bayer at The Guardian, a useful explainer for anyone catching up with this new development.

And on the wider geopolitical scale, Mary Ilyushina and Francesca Ebel—whose report at the Washington Post includes video of legislators in Tbilisi brawling with each other as they cleared the bill Tuesday, are pointing out that the new measure in Georgia “could also undermine Georgia’s bid to join the European Union.

The write, “Long criticized by Western and EU politicians as anti-democratic, the bill could derail Georgia’s long-held aspirations of EU membership. The European Commission granted Georgia EU candidate status in December. Speaking at a summit in Copenhagen on Tuesday, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, said that he was ‘personally disappointed’ by the developments in Georgia.”


More on the Georgian market is here, and more on Europe is here. Our coverage of the Russian war’s impact on Ukraine’s publishing industry is here, along with international reactions. More on Politics and their impact on book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.