9 июля 2024
Andrew Gundal, photo from Walt Jabsco (Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Restrictive Legislation: Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan Adopt New Laws on Civic Freedoms and Media

Human rights observers concerned about its impacts on freedom of speech

Restrictive Legislation: Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan Adopt New Laws on Civic Freedoms and Media

Over the course of just three months, between April and June, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan passed legislation that many in the international community describe as “restricting” civic freedoms. According to human rights organizations, the new laws are poised to check and control the activity of media and journalists and the operations of foreign-funded organizations.

What Are These Laws?

In April, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov signed what many called a “foreign agent” law (echoing the restrictive legislation against media and NGOs passed in Russia in 2012). The law requires any organization receiving funding from abroad to be registered as a “foreign representative” and label anything they publish as having been produced by a “foreign agent.”

Japarov claimed that Kyrgyz NGOs are embezzling money from foreign donors and that this law will help to prevent theft. Any organization receiving funding from abroad that fails to register as a “foreign representative” will be suspended for six months and their assets will be frozen.

Hugh Williamson, director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a conversation with Vlast that it was vital that Kyrgyzstan’s international partners continue to urge Bishkek to withdraw the law, rather than take a business-as-usual approach.

“The European Union (EU) just agreed to an enhanced partnership and cooperation agreement with Kyrgyzstan. President Japarov was just in Brussels and the visit was not put off by the fact that this legislation had just passed.”

In EU-Central Asia relations, enhanced partnership and cooperation agreements are framework documents that help define trade and diplomatic ties.

On June 3, Shalva Papuashvili, the Speaker of the Parliament in Georgia, signed a “foreign agent” law after President Salome Zurabishvili’s veto was overridden by the majority party in parliament, Georgian Dream.

Before it was signed, Zurabishvili had called the bill “unacceptable” and claimed it was inconsistent with Georgia’s accession path to the European Union (EU). According to Jeanne Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Zurabishvili’s statement holds merit, because it fails to comply with two of the 12 requirements set out for Georgian accession to the EU.

The bill requires any individual or organization in Georgia that receives over 20% of its funding from overseas sources to register as a “foreign agent,” yielding fines for any organization that fails to do so.

Cavelier said the ministry of justice, which was in charge of implementing the bill, enjoys wide-ranging powers.

“The ministry of justice has the power not only to request information from organizations that declare themselves, but also from those it suspects of receiving foreign funding on the basis of a simple report,” Cavelier told Vlast.

Photo by Paolo Sorbello.

On June 19, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed a law titled “On Mass Media,” replacing two previous pieces of legislation on media and television and radio broadcasting.

As of now, all forms of media, including internet sources will be classified as media outlets and will reportedly limit journalists' ability to receive comments from government officials and interviews. Any media outlet will be required to obtain a permit and foreign journalists will need to be accredited by Kazakhstan’s government before operating.

While the three pieces of legislation have sparked an outcry from the international community and led to public protests in Georgia, this is not the first time legislation like this has been passed.

Many argue that the Georgian and Kyrgyz laws are modeled after Russia’s “foreign agent” law from 2012.

“In Russia, the legislation was extremely restrictive on civil society organizations having to label themselves, de-register, or take other steps, but the same thing could happen in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia. I hope they won’t, but this is a first step,” Williamson told Vlast.

Several other countries adopted similar laws in recent years, including Uzbekistan and Israel. Others, including Hungary, are planning to do it.

What the Future Holds

Observers of the recent legislative crackdown on mass media through these “foreign agents” bills, including HRW and RSF, have expressed concerns about the ambiguity of the legislation.

Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have all passed or drafted amendments to the laws banning “propaganda or agitation of non-traditional sexual orientation.”

RSF’s Cavelier defines the wording as “vague, [leaving] a great deal of room for interpretation and [opening] the door for state censorship.”

“[In Georgia’s case], self-censorship has already begun. Key non-governmental organizations that advocate for freedoms of speech, press, and LGBT+ rights have decided to stay silent after they have been targets of direct attacks since their activism fuels the Georgian Dream [party].” – Shota Kincha, staff writer at Open Caucasus Media in Tbilisi, told Vlast.

Despite this legislation being a setback for the 79% of Georgians who, according to a recent poll, support EU integration. Mamuka Andguladze, chair of the Media Advocacy Coalition in Tbilisi, told Vlast that there are still reasons to remain hopeful.

“The protests against the ‘Russian Law’ showed once again how united Georgian citizens are against non-democratic and anti-EU decisions. The willingness of the young generations to protest and protect the country's historical choice keeps me thinking positively about the future, even in this difficult time,” Andguladze said.

The recent wave of anti-western rhetoric served a blow to Georgia. On July 9, the EU announced that Georgia’s application to join the union will be suspended. EU envoy Paweł Herczyński also noted that a €30 million check to the Tbilisi government from the EU’s off-budget resilience fund will also be suspended.

In Kazakhstan, the new media law allows the government to monitor and, essentially, “police” for moral, family, and cultural values, media lawyer Gulmira Birzhanova said.

“These are not legal concepts. Who can define what morality is, what cultural values ​​are? When we raised the question, the ministry told us, don’t worry, there will be no sanctions, only warnings. Yet, when such norms are adopted, they can easily transform into stricter control. This is very dangerous,” according to Birzhanova.

Andrew Gundal is a researcher and analyst covering Central Asia.