On 18 September 2023, the State Security Service of Georgia (SSSG) announced an unspecified criminal investigation into the “conspiracy” to “plot” “civil unrest” and the “violent overthrow” of the government, involving a Serbian civil society organisation CANVAS. In a subsequent briefing on 2 October, the SSSG pointed at educational training on non-violent and creative strategies of civic activism for arts and culture workers as the forum where “a large group” was trained to carry out a conspiracy. The training was conducted at the end of September 2023 in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi and was funded by the East – West Management Institute and USAID. Georgia’s Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Parliament supported SSSG statements, smeared the civil society organisations (CSOs) and donors involved and demanded “explanations” and threatened “severe punishment”. As of mid-October, the SSSG has questioned CANVAS trainers and CANVAS Georgia leadership, allegedly without presenting legal grounds, as well as several representatives of Georgia’s cultural scene and a member of USAID Georgia.
As a follow-up to SSSG’s apparently bogus investigation, on 5 October the Georgian Parliament adopted amendments to the law governing public assemblies which restrict and curtail the right to freedom of assembly. The amendments grant unfettered and arbitrary powers to the police to demolish temporary structures lawfully erected during peaceful demonstrations, resulting in vague and unforeseeable police measures. On 18 October the Georgian President vetoed the newly adopted amendments and we are concerned that the Parliament will likely overturn this veto.
These developments are particularly worrisome as they follow trends concerning already narrowing space for public protest in the country. On 4 September 2023, the Speaker of the Parliament moved to prohibit entry into the Parliament building by individuals in possession of items used for demonstrations, such as banners and signs. During the same month, a well-known human rights defender was administratively charged for peacefully holding a blank piece of paper in front of the Parliament.
Furthermore, on 18 October 2023, following an expedited process, the Parliament adopted amendments to the Law on Broadcasting proposed by the ruling party. The amendments grant powers to the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) to review the alleged use of hate speech (incitement of hatred) and “obscenity” within media content and apply sanctions. Media experts claim that the proposed bill is dangerous and will further curtail civic space. The GNCC has already been criticised for targeting the media before, while the proposed definition of “obscenity” is so broad and vague that it is expected to lead to arbitrary interference and abuse.
These limitations against civic space in Georgia should be understood against the backdrop of an attempt to adopt a “foreign agents” bill in March 2023. “Foreign agents” legislation is inspired by Russia’s 2012 law and seeks to stigmatise and silence independent civil society, media, and critical voices. Though never adopted, Georgia’s draft “foreign agents” law resulted in an intensification of anti-civil society narratives by the authorities. The ruling party leadership continuously smears human rights defenders, journalists and civic organisations with a pejorative label from the draft.
The authorities’ rhetoric and actions drastically contravene their commitments under the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and subsequent UN resolutions that Georgia has either co-sponsored or supported, as well as Council of Europe standards. These instruments prevent states from criminalising the work of human rights defenders and abusing national security laws. They require states to allow dissenting and opposing voices and respect the independence of the CSOs. Governments have a responsibility to facilitate peaceful protest and create an enabling environment for civil society. Criminal investigation into civic activity without a lawful ground or a legitimate aim gravely infringes the freedoms of association and expression, and will have further significant chilling effect on civic actors.
Furthermore, the amendments to the law on assemblies contradict Georgia’s obligations under the right to peaceful assembly. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Georgia is a party, uphold the right to erect temporary structures during peaceful protests and prohibit any interference that is not based on foreseeable and sufficiently precise laws, and is disproportionate. Similarly, the amendments to the Law on Broadcasting could infringe freedom of expression guaranteed by the ECHR and ICCPR. The legal ground for interference within the freedom is not sufficiently clearly defined and foreseeable, allowing the state regulator to target critical media.
We urge the Georgian authorities to respect their obligations undertaken within UN and Council of Europe frameworks and reverse the restrictive policies towards independent or critical civil society. In particular, we call upon the authorities to:
- Immediately drop the groundless criminal investigation into the educational training conducted in Sept 2023;
- Withdraw legislative amendments restricting peaceful freedom of assembly
- Immediately halt the process of amending the Law on Broadcasting and organise meaningful and inclusive consultations with the media and CSOs;
- Accept dissenting views and publicly recognise the role of human rights defenders and activists;
- Undertake efforts to create an environment conducive to free and unhindered civic space.