July 1, 2024

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina – Fact-checkers in Georgia say they are facing an existential threat. 

After the passage of a controversial law targeting organizations receiving foreign funding, Georgian fact-checkers are concerned about the sustainability of their operations, the safety of their staff and families, and the erosion of the country’s democratic institutions.

FactCheck Georgia and Myth Detector, signatories to the International Fact-Checking Network Code of Principles, spoke passionately about the situation in Georgia during breakout sessions and interviews at GlobalFact 11, the world’s largest annual fact-checking conference, held June 26-28.

“If authoritarians (have) arrived in Georgia… at one point next year, fact-checking operations or individual fact-checkers in Georgia won’t be able to continue with their activities,” said Paata Gaprindashvili, director of Georgia’s Reforms Associates, which operates FactCheck Georgia.

In late May, Georgia’s parliament passed its “foreign agents” bill, which requires organizations with 20% of their funding from foreign sources to register as “agents of foreign influence.” Failure to do so would be penalized with hefty fines.

Such organizations need to register under that label by August. But it is a label rejected by people like Gaprindashvili. It is “something (we) are not going to do,” he told Poynter in an interview.

Russian tactics

Tamar Kintsurashvili, editor-in-chief of Myth Detector, talked about the notion of “sovereign democracy,” which rejects foreign interference in domestic issues. This includes any outside criticism of policies that would threaten democratic values and institutions.

“This is a Russian style (of) approach, to undermine trust in democratic institutions and to violate basic human rights,” she said. The foreign agents law was also modeled after a similar law in Russia.

Mariam Tsitsikashvili, project manager of Georgia’s Reforms Associates and debunking editor of FactCheck Georgia, talked about a recent experience in an airport where she encountered a Georgian member of parliament who voted for the foreign agents law. Tsitsikashvili expressed her views and said she was disappointed with his vote. Moments later, she said, the police approached her.

She said she was immediately brought to court, where police accused her of violating the public order in the airport. She awaits the ruling, which will be announced July 1.

“We do not have (expectations) that the decision will be fair,” Tsitsikashvili said. The lack of judicial independence in Georgia is a problem, Kintsurashvili and Tsitsikashvili said.

Georgia’s path to EU membership has now been put “on hold” because of its disapproval of the foreign agents law. Kintsurashvili said that back when Georgia received EU candidate status in December 2023, the country was a transitional democracy. “Right now, I don’t know what type of country we are because we are moving to (autocracy),” she said. 

“We are not (the) only targets as fact-checkers. Our partner organization, investigative reporters, other watchdogs also were targeted in the same way,” Kintsurashvili said.

For Gaprindashvili, Georgia is facing creeping authoritarianism. “The prime objective of this law is to wipe out all the NGOs, critical NGOs… starting from helping disabled people, ending up with doing their research and advocacy efforts. This law will affect everyone,” he said.

‘Global War Party’ and other narratives

FactCheck Georgia got to work debunking falsehoods about the law, named “transparency of foreign influence,” before it was ultimately passed. It was reintroduced on April 3 after mass protests led to its withdrawal from parliament in March 2023. 

Vano Gureshidze, senior analyst for FactCheck Georgia, said the law’s introduction led to a cross-platform disinformation campaign. “Us as fact-checkers, and there aren’t many of us unfortunately, we were the only wall standing against it and protecting information integrity at the time. And I think we were very effective, which gives me hope that we will continue like this in this coming period,” he said.

Tsitsikashvili and Gureshidze said falsehoods included one claiming that the foreign agents law was an analogue of the U.S.’ 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act. FactCheck found that the two laws are “fundamentally different:” The U.S. law doesn’t solely use foreign funding as a basis for registration. 

Another misleading claim was that the law wouldn’t apply to individuals. Malkhaz Rekhviashvili, FactCheck Georgia editor-in-chief, spoke about how the law empowers the government to ask for personal information from individuals. This would include details such as the person’s sexual orientation, Rekhviashvili said. Such information should be legally protected, but the foreign agents law made an exemption.

One of the most prominent conspiracies promoted by Georgian leaders accuses individuals and organizations of being part of or being influenced by a “global war party” that wants to incite war between Georgia and Russia.

Gaprindashvili cited an instance when Georgian member of parliament Mariam Lashkhi guested in a podcast and compared the global war party to freemasons “who are governing the world.” This is the kind of disinformation and propaganda they explain and debunk for the benefit of the public, Gaprindashvili said.

When claims about the foreign agent bill were fact-checked and misleading posts were labeled accordingly through Meta’s third-party fact-checking program, Tsitsikashvili said this was used by promoters of the conspiracy as proof that the global war party is real, in connection to Meta and fact-checkers. 

“This is the playbook of how authoritarian regimes work, that they definitely need an enemy,” Tsitsikashvili said.

False claims about the bill also proliferated on TikTok before it was passed.

Fighting back against intimidation

The staff of Myth Detector is already experiencing hostility stemming from the foreign agents law. In the weeks since it was reintroduced, their office has been vandalized multiple times with words including “traitors of the homeland” and “slaves.” 

On May 10, Kintsurashvili posted footage of two masked people at her organization’s office putting up posters of Kintsurashvili with the text “executor of foreigners’ orders.” She shared on X that she and her family members received abusive phone calls. 

Kintsurashvili said there have also been attempts to attack their websites or access their private and work emails. Because of the lack of support from the police, Kintsurashvili said, they alert others for support.

“Since police do not protect us, we are left alone. We actually address mostly international organizations to notify them. We post video footages in social media and receive support internationally,” she said. “Institutions are not protecting us. This is a key problem in our case.”

On June 5, the International Fact-Checking Network and the European Fact-Checking Standards Network published an open letter to the European Union leadership denouncing the harassment to Georgian fact-checkers and asking the EU to “use the tools at your disposal to see that those attacks stop.”

All of the fact-checkers Poynter spoke to are intent on continuing their work. “Either we pull through now and protect Georgia’s democracy and protect the truth during the upcoming elections and through this hard period or there just will be no space for us left in that country,” Gureshidze said.

Gaprindashvili and Kintsurashvili are considering options for how their organizations will operate — safely and securely — moving forward. 

In the meantime, they are not going anywhere. “We continue this fight,” Kintsurashvili said.

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Loreben Tuquero is a reporter covering misinformation for PolitiFact. She previously worked as a researcher/writer for Rappler, where she wrote fact checks and stories on…
Loreben Tuquero

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