When was the FARA adopted, and how does it work in the United States?

In 1938, the United States Department of Justice passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act, also known as FARA. It was established to address the continuous efforts of foreign governments to influence U.S. domestic and foreign policies, legislation, democratic processes, and public opinion. Recognizing these threats 86 years ago, the United States introduced the FARA. One of the prominent lawyers involved in the reform of the FARA, Matthew Sanderson of the American Bar Association, explains the key aspects of FARA and how the U.S. government carefully utilizes it to safeguard freedom of expression and speech.

"In general, the law does not apply to nonprofit organizations or entities that receive foreign government grants. For instance, if the European Union funds an American-based non-governmental organization, this alone does not necessitate FARA registration or prompt legal action against it."

The Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, was implemented in the United States before World War II to disclose the activities of Nazi and Soviet propagandists who were actively involved in U.S. political circles at the time. 

How did the Russian Law fare in Georgia?


In December 2022, the "People's Power" movement, which was still part of the parliamentary majority at that time, announced that in January 2023, it would introduce a draft law that, according to them, would impact non-governmental organizations operating in Georgia with foreign funding. According to the "People's Power" statement, "the bill would be essentially based on American legislation. Furthermore, in public remarks by "Georgian Dream," it was referred to as "American law."  

In response to their statements, the spokesperson of the State Department, at a briefing held in March 2023, emphatically explained the difference between the American "FARA" and the draft law initiated in Georgia.

"Now, there has been a lot of propaganda about this law. Our Foreign Agents Registration Act requires people who are agents of foreign governments to register as such. Our law does not affect NGO operations or funding sources. We can provide you with additional details on FARA if that would be of use. But FARA is very narrow; it is tailored to apply only to those agents of foreign government. This is something very different, and that’s why we’re quite concerned about it." said Ned Price, a spokesman for the State Department at the time.

Despite this, the bill declared by "People's Power" and "Georgian Dream" as an American law, various media outlets affiliated with the government still informed the public that "the American law is being discussed in the parliament." This continued until the parliamentary majority of Georgia announced on March 9, 2023, that it would unconditionally withdraw the draft law, without any reservations. A year later, the draft law returned to the parliament in an identical form. Despite the fact that, like a year ago, the official representation of the United States, as well as the highest-ranking European officials, harshly assess it and directly state that the adoption of Russian-style legislation will hinder Georgia's path to joining the European Union, the authorities are still stubbornly trying to prove that the arguments against their position do not exist, and the bill is similar to American and European legislation. The fact that the draft law presented in Georgia is qualitatively different from American or European legislation has been substantiated many times by representatives of analytical and political circles in Georgia as well. 

Kakha Gogolashvili, Director of the Center for European Studies, explains: "Very simply and briefly: laws on foreign influence are typologically divided into two groups. The American FARA and the Russian Закон об иностранных агентах (ЗИА). The main difference is that FARA recognizes any organization as an agent of a foreign country if it actually represents foreign interests and works to further those interests. ЗИА recognizes as an agent of a foreign power anyone who receives even a small amount of foreign funding. Laws similar to FARA, with various modifications, have been adopted in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and Israel, and are being considered in France and the European Union. The purpose of FARA is to protect the country's security. The purpose of ЗИА is to stigmatize the civil sector and weaken critical opinion. The result of FARA is increased security, while the result of ЗИА is the expulsion, cancellation, or destruction of thousands of non-governmental organizations, media outlets, civil activists, and intellectuals in Russia". 

Why did the "Georgian Dream" reintroduce the Russian-style bill and how will it be used?

In recent years, alongside the intensification of the political attack campaign against the country's strategic partners, FARA has become a familiar term for the Georgian audience, often politically interpreted to align with the government's agenda. Let's hypothetically consider that the "Georgian Dream" in parliament is indeed contemplating a bill identical to the American FARA. How will the Georgian government leverage it against individuals it opposes? For instance, we can look at the contract signed between "Formula" and an American lobbying company.  

In September 2023, various Georgian and Russian media outlets in Georgia released excerpts from documents distributed by FARA containing nearly identical messages and emphases. These documents seemingly revealed that the primary objective of those involved in Georgia's affairs was solely to derive financial benefits from lobbying activities. The media outlets that presented the FARA documents to the audience noted that "the radical opposition and the affiliated media were once again discomforted by the American law, which labels them as Russian in Georgia, suggesting that even questions posed at the State Department come with a specific price."

It has been revealed that the TV company "Formula" has engaged the services of the lobbying firm "Cornerstone", based in Washington, DC. According to the contract, $110,000 was paid. They also mentioned that the lobbying firm conducted meetings with various individuals, including connections with representatives of the US government and Congress. Notably, Michael Checire, an advisor to the Helsinki Commission active in Congress, was prominently mentioned. Political statements closely followed the media narrative. 

Irakli Kobakhidze, the Prime Minister of Georgia, stated: "I would like to thank the United States of America that the Russian law is still in effect there. It is under this Russian law that information regarding the lobbying expenses incurred by "Formula" and the collective UNM has come to our attention. Names frequently mentioned in FARA, such as Checire, who have raised concerns about the fate of Georgia. It appears that he is concerned about a lobbying contract in which he is involved." 

In the case of the leaders of "Georgian Dream," journalist Alex Raufoglu became the target of an attack as well.

Mamuka Mdinaradze, Leader of the Parliamentary Majority, stated: We have now learned that the TV "Formula" has hired lobbyists, one of whom is a journalist who, to put it mildly, asked strange and damaging questions. These damaging questions were ordered directly from Formula. Is this a regular chain of events, or is there another interpretation? No."

What information did FARA actually disseminate?


We revisited the FARA document, which emphasizes that the lobbying company's communication with Michael Cecire was limited to sending an email, and there was no face-to-face meeting with him. An informed source told us that a representative of Cornerstone, a lobbying company hired by Formula named TJ, sent a letter to Congress identifying himself as Formula's representative in Washington, DC. The email stated that the independent media outlet is concerned about the increasing Russian influence in Georgia, and sought advice on whom to discuss the issue of Georgia's integration into the European Union and NATO. 

As we understand from the letters, the representative of the lobbying company is answered that Michael Cecire is working in the Congress on the issue of Georgia. Right after that, the representative of "Cornerstone" sends a letter to Michael Cecire, but the advisor of the Helsinki Commission does not answer him. Despite the fact that FARA documents also confirm this, the discrediting campaign against specific people continued in Georgia. 

Another informed source provides us with another letter, this time from the lobbying company, about how the communication took place between the lobbying company hired by "Formula" and the journalist Alex Raufoglu. In particular, according to the letter provided to us, a representative of the lobbying company contacted the National Press Club and asked to connect with who may be interested in discussing issues related to the media environment in Georgia.

A letter sent to the National Press Club from the Cornerstone lobbying company states: "I represent Formula TV, an independent media outlet in the country Georgia, one of their journalists, Irakli Kiknavelidze, will be in Washington next Tuesday, and I was hoping to bring him to speak with you or perhaps some interested members of the Journalism Institute's Board of Directors. Irakli would like to discuss the current challenges facing journalists and independent media outlets in Georgia as the country continues to shift into Russia's sphere of influence and the government takes steps to suppress critical voices. Please let me know if you or anu others might be interested in meeting with Irakli."

According to our information, this letter from the lobbying company was forwarded to journalist Alex Raufoglu, who confirmed that he met with the representative of "Cornerstone" and the journalist from "Formula," Irakli Kiknavelidze, in June 2023. Speaking to us, Irakli Kiknavelidze himself confirmed this meeting and stated that it was the only face-to-face meeting in Washington in which he participated, facilitated by a lobbying company. Journalist Alex Raufoglu himself recalled why he agreed to the meeting and what the main reason for his interest was. 

Alex Raufoglu, Journalist: "My special interest in the issue of Georgia began after I saw photos of how the former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, appeared in prison. The main focus of my work is the protection and advocacy of human rights. Originally I m from Azerbaijan, I witnessed the loss of democracy in our country. Georgia concerns me for many reasons, including the fact that under different administrations in the past, we have looked to Georgia as an example. Naturally, I always verify information about Georgia from various sources to ensure that, as a journalist, I am well-informed from primary sources. When I received a letter from the National Press Club expressing interest in a meeting from a "Formula" journalist, I responded in the capacity of a volunteer, so to speak. I know that this is not the first time Georgia has used the help of a lobbying company. I have been studying the FARA documents for years and have extensively researched how the government of Azerbaijan used lobbying companies. Therefore, I am well aware of how FARA operates. While it was ultimately Formula's decision to hire a lobbying company, even though the company initially reached out to the journalists' club, I had no direct involvement with them. My aim was to utilize any available means to gather maximum information about the current situation in Georgia. The meeting with the lobbying company and the "Formula" representative lasted about an hour, during which I sought answers to all the questions I had prepared in advance. However, the outcome and the response I received from the Georgian authorities made it clear that I had become a victim. I suspect this was a well-planned operation against me. The lobbying company acted entirely within legal boundaries, but it was manipulated by the corrupt pro-Russian regime in Georgia to discredit me, Michael Cecire, or others. Nevertheless, this does not imply that "Formula" paid us money. Consider the consequences if they were granted powers akin to those under Russian-style laws; they would use them against anyone. This is why Russian-style laws pose a threat in the hands of the Russian regime. It has nothing to do with transparency".

Journalist Alex Raufoglu is still being labeled as a bribed journalist in media outlets affiliated with the Georgian government. Various videos targeting him are circulating on social networks with the intention to discredit him.

In fact, despite the fact that the Russian-style bill in Georgia has not yet been enacted into law, the Georgian Government has already attempted multiple times to leverage American FARA to discredit individuals who pose challenges to it. It is easy to envision how "Georgian Dream" will utilize the Russian law against any individual it deems an undesirable actor. The law will be used to bolster its own political narrative and portray anyone evaluating Georgia's current dynamics, whether aligned with internal or external interests, as acting based on lobbying and financial motives, rather than as objective observers.

This is just a segment of our investigation, which we plan to delve into further in the future. Nevertheless, the ongoing developments in Georgia indicate that the extensive propaganda campaign surrounding the Russian law has not resonated with the public – tens of thousands of Georgian citizens are protesting against it in the streets, and this resistance will persist until "Georgian Dream" definitively abandons the Russian law.

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