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New Law Puts Academic Freedom in Georgia at Risk

Protestors gathered outside of the Georgian parliament. Photo credit: Bloomberg

On Tuesday May 28th, 2024, the Georgian parliament passed the “Transparency on Foreign Influence” bill, which will pressure media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive foreign funding. Under the new legislation, these civil society organizations that receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign sources will be formally labeled as “organizations serving the interests of a foreign power and will have to abide by strict regulations.[1] The bill has sparked strong and widespread reaction within Georgia as groups concerned about the threat it poses to freedom of expression have taken to the streets in protest.[2] As it stands, the new legislation also endangers academic freedom given that many researchers and higher education institutions depend on international cooperation and foreign funding to conduct independent research.

The bill was first introduced and passed on March 8, 2023, but was repealed after it caused widespread protests in the country. An almost identical version of the law was reintroduced and passed again this year, on May 14, 2024.[3] After President Zourabishvili vetoed the bill, the parliament overrode the president’s veto on May 28. The 84 votes out of the 150-member Georgian parliament came mostly from the ruling Georgian Dream Party. Critics have said that the law closely resembles the “foreign agents law” passed in Russia in 2012, which has been instrumental in the consolidation of the authoritarian regime under Vladimir Putin.

Protests have mostly been directed against the threat of authoritarianism, as well as the new law jeopardizing Georgia’s potential admission to the European Union. The police crackdown in response to the protests further support such concerns. According to the World Organization Against Torture, at least 300 protestors have been detained since mid-April and instances of police brutality have been reported.[4] The protests have been some of the biggest since Georgia’s transition to liberal democracy in the 1990s and have also spread to universities as students get involved. Students from Tbilisi State University launched an academic boycott starting from May 12 as they announced they will not be attending classes until the law is repealed.[5] Students from other institutions such as Ilia State University, Batumi Shota Rustaveli State University, and the International Black Sea University have joined the student strike.[6]

Groups of students and faculty have also staged protests outside of university grounds, criticizing the bill for threatening academic freedom.[7] Aside from the indirect impact the law will have on academic freedom through the deterioration of rights and liberties, the new legislation will have potential direct impacts on academic freedom as well. By equating receiving foreign funding with “serving foreign interests”, the law endangers institutions and individuals engaged in research projects based on international collaboration. The UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk also has criticized the new law, highlighting the extent to which it will damage freedom of expression in Georgia.[8]

Endangered Scholars Worldwide (ESW) is deeply concerned about the potential impact of Georgia’s new “foreign agents law” on democratic rights and liberties in general and academic freedom in particular. We call upon the Georgian government and judiciary to repeal the legislation, allow civil society organizations to freely pursue their work, and prevent potential limitations on that freedom to research and teach. We further ask the members of the international community committed to upholding human rights globally to join our call to hold the Georgian government accountable.

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