Over the past weeks, international media has been very vocal about the protests happening in Georgia against the draft ´foreign agent law´ in the country. Had the government not backed out on it due to the protests, the law would have allowed Georgia to label media and NGOs who receive more than 20 per cent of their funding from abroad as ´foreign agents´. Not only protestors, but US and EU officials also found the Georgian Dream Party’s initiative objectionable.
To allow it to enter the bloc, the EU demanded that Georgia implement reforms in the area of free speech, media, and civil society. However, the foreign agent law was viewed not as a step forward, but as a step backward by Brussels.
Soon after the Georgian government decided not to implement the controversial legislation, President of Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik (a Bosnian Serb politician) proposed a very similar bill that would allow Republika Srpska to classify certain NGOs foreign agents. The announcement was seen as controversial by both EU and US leaders. EU officials reminded all that any legislation that might limit the freedom of expression and speech in Bosnia and Herzegovina would stand in the way of the country’s EU accession.
In his defence, Milorad Dodik said that the proposed legislation emulates American policies, which the US Embassy harshly rebutted. The embassy argued that such foreign agent laws originate from the Kremlin.
Dobik, on the other hand, has retorted that foreign non-governmental organisations, or organisations that are financed from abroad, are in fact labelled as foreign agents on US territory. The US Foreign Agents Registration Act does require entities representing or receiving funding from entities abroad to disclose their international connections. They are also required to register with the US Department of Justice. In other words, the US foreign agent legislation is about increasing transparency, by highlighting the real connections between organisations operating in the United States and entities abroad. These connections can be conceptualised as financial connections, or the institutions involved can qualify as being the official representatives of foreign entities.
When in 2012 Russia expanded its relevant legislation, which is blamed by the US for inspiring the recent Georgian and Bosnian laws, it also claimed to be inspired by US policies. The Russian law requires anyone receiving support from abroad, or anyone who is influenced by forces outside Russia, to go through an extra audit and to display a 24-word-long text saying they are foreign agents, on every publication they make. The law is very strictly enforced in Russia, and has been gradually expanded over the years, with even academics, journalists, and YouTubers being labelled now.
Importantly, the Russian law is problematic for multiple reasons. First, being under non-Russian ´ideological´ influence can also get someone be designated as a foreign agent; and secondly, the Russian state registers organisations and individuals as foreign agents without their consent.
Hungary made headlines again in recent weeks in international media outlets in relation to the foreign agent law in Georgia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as Budapest has also had such a law on the books.
The Hungarian regulation required civil society organisations that received money from outside the country above a certain threshold to notify the registry court and display information about their funding on their publications and websites. The law introduced in 2017 was revoked in 2021.
While in all of these countries (with the exception of the United States), the introduction of foreign agent laws was denounced and demonised by the international press, in reality, the content and implementation of the legislation were different in each country.
For instance, in Russia, the legislation was used to repress dissent, alienate readers from non-governmental media outlets and disengage the public.
In Hungary, on the other hand, no such thing occurred; the legislation served only transparency purposes.
The difference in the intent of the legislation was clear from the start. The Kremlin gave the Russian administration the arbitrary power to label anyone a foreign agent if the organisation in question was believed to be ´under foreign influence´ (even if it did not receive any funding from outside the country). Hungary, on the other hand, evaluated an organisation’s connection to actors abroad only on financial grounds. Also, it was the institutions themselves who registered, ruling out the possibility of arbitrary labelling.
The problem with the catchphrase ´foreign agent legislation´ is that (since the repressive Russian example) all laws under this name are vilified, without looking at the actual content of the individual bills. Instead of letting ourselves be deceived by the names of certain legal acts, one should assess their content and intent. As long as the legislation aims to improve transparency, it is justifiable. Once the legislation endows the state with the arbitrary right to label anyone as ´foreign agents´ simply based on ideological grounds, instead of on actual financial connections, condemning the legislation is very much reasonable.