Photo: Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP

One of the biggest international stories in Western media over the past two months has been the proposed “Foreign Agents” law in the Republic of Georgia.

The law — which was passed by the Georgian parliament on May 14 and officially signed into law on June 3 — has been extremely controversial since it was first introduced in 2023 and revived in April of this year. Differently framed coverage of the new legislation from American and international news outlets provides an important lesson in global media bias.

Formally titled the “Transparency of Foreign Influence Act,” it’s similar in concept to the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which was enacted in 1938, and it requires anyone who acts on behalf of a “foreign principle” to influence U.S. policy or public opinion to register as a “foreign agent.”

As its critics, which include American and European officials, have noted, the law also bears resemblance to foreign agents legislation in Russia.

This parallel, coupled with the ruling party Georgian Dream’s recent continued maintenance of a relationship with the Kremlin as Western governments have attempted to distance themselves from it, has led some to dub the law a “Russian law.”

Clearly disapproved by the West, the law has become an intense point of friction between Georgia and the European Union, which many Georgians have expressed a desire to join. The EU has longly warned Georgia that such a law would jeopardize its chances of a Western future, and the U.S. has echoed the sentiments

Across the spectrum, mainstream Western media outlets have been quick to prominently include context on Russia’s foreign agents law, but offered scant context on FARA, demonstrating a pro-Western bias.

While AllSides rates outlets for bias on a five-point scale from Left to Right, this is a notable example of how certain stories — often those of geopolitical significance — can transcend the basic domestic L-C-R model.

Background on FARA and Georgia’s Foreign Agents Law

As relations between the U.S. and Russia have deteriorated over the past decade, some nations, like Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, Serbia, and even European Union members like Hungary have found themselves caught in the middle of a geopolitical power struggle that some are now referring to as Cold War II. 

This schism was chronicled in a March 2023 AllSides Analysis when Georgia’s parliament first introduced the foreign agents law, before ultimately standing down as a result of intense civilian protesting and Western pressure.

This year, however, the law was revived to a similar response from its detractors within Georgia and abroad. Despite Western opposition that most recently included sanctions from the U.S. and a veto from Georgia’s politically independent President Salome Zourabichvili (who notably appeared on 60 Minutes in October, imploring the West for help), parliament has moved forward with the new law.

The new legislation requires all individuals, media outlets, and NGOs that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents. 

Those who fail to register could be fined up to 25,000 Georgian Lari (roughly $9,500), yet as of now, there are no parameters set for criminal prosecutions. Conversely, both the Russian and American foreign agents laws can lead to criminal prosecutions of violators.

The ruling party in Georgia, Georgian Dream, has claimed this new legislation is modeled after FARA, while its critics claim it’s much more similar to the Kremlin’s foreign agents law.

Regardless of the Georgian government’s ambitions, the existence of FARA is relevant context, if nothing else, for Western readers to better understand how foreign agents laws can function within a nation like the United States; and why exactly Western governments view Georgia’s proposed law as “undemocratic” or “authoritarian.”

How The Media Covered Georgia’s Foreign Agents Law

The draft law reaching the parliament floor in Tbilisi was a notable story last year that generated some coverage from American news outlets like Newsweek (Center bias), CNN (Lean Left bias), and Fox News (Right bias). Several outlets, like Newsweek and CNN, noted that both the Russian and Georgian governments had pointed to FARA as evidence that the Georgian law was not inherently “Russian” in its nature. 

Despite the amount of coverage of the situation in Georgia dramatically dwarfing the attention it received from Western media last year, this inclusion of this context has been few and far between.

AllSides analyzed news coverage from several of the biggest American media outlets that have covered the law since its revival in early April and passage on June 3.

Editor’s Note: The Telegraph (Lean Right bias) is a British outlet, and was reviewed in lieu of another American outlet as American media on the right usually do not author original coverage of many international stories at scale. For instance, AllSides did not find any news coverage of the events in Georgia from The New York Post (Lean Right bias).

Western Media’s Coverage of Georgia’s Foreign Agents Law

The Associated Press (Lean Left bias)

AllSides found and analyzed 21 pieces of news coverage from The Associated Press. None included context on FARA.

Politico (Lean Left bias)

AllSides found and analyzed 29 pieces of news coverage from Politico. Three articles, posted on May 3, 24, and 28 included context on FARA.

Though the context offered varied a bit per instance, per Politico, FARA is a less aggressive law than its Georgian counterpart because it specifically applies to those working on behalf of the government of a foreign country.

In its May 3 coverage Politico noted how Georgian Dream officials said their law was modeled on FARA, but wrote that “FARA only applies to lobbyists actively working on behalf of the governments of other countries and communicating with lawmakers.” It also likened the Georgian law to Russia’s foreign agents law which it said “has been used to quash dissent in the country.” 

In a later piece of coverage on May 28, Politico claimed that in Georgia, “The overwhelming majority of NGOs and media outlets that would be affected are in receipt of grants from countries like the U.S., Germany and Sweden for democracy building and anti-corruption initiatives.”

Newsweek (Center bias)

AllSides found and analyzed 4 pieces of news coverage from Newsweek. None included context on FARA.

Reuters (Center bias)

AllSides found and analyzed 36 pieces of news coverage from Reuters. Two articles, both posted on April 17, included context on FARA.

Reuters offered less context on FARA in relation to the Georgian law than Politico, but on April 17 similarly pointed out that Georgian Dream said its law is modeled on FARA.

Fox News (Right bias)

AllSides found and analyzed 4 pieces of news coverage from Fox News. None included context on FARA. Fox also republished several stories from wire services like The Associated Press and Reuters, however, these were not authored by Fox News and therefore are not counted as original coverage.

The Telegraph - UK (Lean Right bias)

AllSides found and analyzed 9 pieces of news coverage from The Telegraph. None included context on FARA.

A full docket of coverage analyzed by AllSides can be viewed here.

'Non-Western' Media’s Coverage of Georgia’s Foreign Agents Law

While mainstream Western news outlets have offered minimal context on the existence of FARA, some media outlets outside the Western media sphere have covered the story differently, often providing more or different context on both the Georgian and American foreign agents laws.

RT (Lean Right bias)

AllSides found and analyzed 19 pieces of news coverage from RT, the English-language counterpart of the Kremlin-funded network Russia Today.

While RT only mentioned FARA three times, it framed its headlines differently and offered different context from sources like Politico or Reuters.

On May 14 and 23, in articles similarly titled “US threatens NATO applicant with sanctions” and ‘US threatens to punish NATO applicant,” RT noted the Georgian bill punishes violators with “a fine of up to $9,500” and “does not provide for criminal prosecutions, unlike the US’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which has been in effect since the 1930s.”

In a third article published on May 24 and titled “US announces visa crackdown on NATO hopeful,” RT wrote that the bill’s advocates “have also drawn parallels with Russia’s Foreign Agents Law, which was passed in 2012 and bears strong similarities to the US Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA).”

Hungarian Conservative (Lean Right bias)

AllSides found and analyzed one piece of coverage from Hungarian Conservative, an English-language digital and print magazine that claims to cover “contemporary political, philosophical and cultural issues from a conservative perspective.”

The article, an analysis by Joakim Scheffer, included a much lengthier section on FARA than the other outlets AllSides analyzed. Contrary to what both Politico and RT stated in their coverage, Scheffer claimed “there’s almost no difference between the US FARA and the Georgian or the Hungarian laws regulating foreign influence.”

Western-Funded Caucasian Outlets

Some Caucasian outlets that are funded by Western NGOs, like Civil Georgia and JAMnews (neither of which are rated by AllSides and both are offered in English), reported on the situation in Georgia much more than mainstream Western media outlets.

Civil Georgia, which at a glance appeared to run nearly 100 articles on the “foreign agents” story, themed two headlines around FARA on April 10 and 11, both of which dismissed similarities between the two laws: “U.S. Ambassador Reiterates “Serious Concern” about Foreign Agents’ Law, Rejects Similarity with FARA” and “US FARA vs. Georgian Foreign Agents Law: Three Major Differences.” AllSides also found five other pieces of news coverage that mentioned FARA from Civil Georgia within the article’s body.

JAMnews, which ran over 100 articles on the topic, mentioned FARA in five articles, ultimately dismissing the notion that FARA and Georgian Dream’s law are similar.

Despite being based in the Caucasus, Civil Georgia is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and JAMnews (which previously received funding from the NED), cites the European Endowment for Democracy as a major donor. This likely explains their bias towards the legislation being pro-Western as opposed to RT and Hungarian Conservative which expressed different biases.

Editor’s Note: Due to the volume of posts from these outlets, AllSides did not review every piece of coverage on the ‘foreign agents’ story from either outlet. Searching “FARA” in Civil Georgia’s search engine only returned results that had “FARA” in the article title. JAMnews’ internal search engine seemed to return all articles that included the term.

AllSides Analysis - How Bias Transcends the American Media Ecosystem

While it may seem like a minor detail, the existence of FARA in the U.S. is crucial context for American readers, especially as some American journalists like Glenn Greenwald (Center bias) and Tucker Carlson (Right bias) have recently called attention to how the law can be used against dissenters in the U.S.

For instance, members of the African People's Socialist Party are currently facing up to 15 years prison time for allegedly participating in an influence campaign that criticized U.S. involvement in Ukraine without notifying the U.S. government, in a prosecution that Greenwald has described as “flimsy.”

Per Politico, an ostensibly pro-Western source, FARA is limited to targeting “lobbyists actively working on behalf of the governments of other countries,” and not individuals, media outlets, or NGOs, while the Georgian one applies to these entities.

However, per RT, an ostensibly pro-Russian source, FARA allows for harsh criminal prosecutions, while those in violation of the new Georgian law could only be fined (up to $9,500).

As outlets from both the Western and non-Western spheres did not mention it often, they’ve offered different pieces of context that frame both the Georgian and American foreign agents laws much differently. 

Without reading sources of different biases, in this case, on a spectrum of pro-Western to pro-Russian, readers would be led in just one direction based on the actions of the Georgian government’s decision to implement its foreign agents law.

In following the news and trying to see the full picture, readers should always consider not just the bias of the outlet on the American left-to-right spectrum, but other factors like where the outlet is based, who owns or funds it, which laws it may be subject to, and so on.

Nonetheless, the Georgian foreign agents law story is a perfect example of how American readers can be largely coddled in one direction even within their own seemingly polarized media landscape.

Andy Gorel is a News Editor and Bias Analyst at AllSides. He has a Center bias.

This blog was edited and reviewed by Joseph Ratliff, Content Designer and News Editor (Lean Left bias), Henry Brechter, AllSides Editor-in-Chief (Center bias), and Malayna J. Bizier, News Assistant (Lean Right bias).