Countering Propaganda: Does the EU Need Foreign Agent Regulations?

Combating disinformation effectively requires a more nuanced approach than a simple ban

8 September 2023

Tetyana Oleksiyuk

Future of Ukraine Fellow

With disinformation from Russia and other malign actors spreading across the EU’s mediasphere, legislators in Brussels are looking into a new foreign agent law which could limit their impact. However, this policy discussion must learn from lessons of the past to avoid curtailing democratic freedoms.

The European Union is working on a law forcing nongovernmental groups, consultancies and academic institutions to disclose any non-EU funding as part of a crackdown on foreign influence in the bloc, POLITICO reports.

Developing so-called foreign agent laws triggers a wide and often negative reaction from civil society at the level of national states. At the same time, the European Union has declared its aim to escalate efforts to counter and mitigate foreign interference and influence within its member states.

Recognising the potential threats posed by external actors seeking to manipulate political processes, sow discord and undermine the sovereignty of EU nations, the discussion has started to find a robust approach aimed at safeguarding its democratic foundations.

Balancing transparency and civil liberties

Currently, there is no formal draft bill, rather, there exists an informal concept regarding the potential identification of the funding sources of European Union non-governmental organisations.

Indeed, examples regulating foreign agents exist worldwide, often driven by historical contexts, and an analysis of such cases could help contribute to the development of an effective and balanced framework during its preliminary stages.

The US law was introduced in 1938 due to intense pressure from German propaganda; even then, it was evident that authoritarian states could exploit the media and freedoms guaranteed in democratic societies to spread disinformation.

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An important aspect to highlight is that the US law regarding foreign agents was not aimed at introducing censorship; it merely requires the identification of such agents. Democratic societies, relying on the freedom of their citizens and their democratic governments or representatives, naturally leave the choice of how to respond to specific information to their citizens. The purpose was to ensure informed awareness about the funding sources for various influential agents, such as the media or non-governmental organisations.

The same rationale for foreign agent legislation is being articulated in Europe now as a countermeasure against Russian propaganda.

The contemporary European resolution towards similar laws echoes the underlying principle of awareness over censorship. This approach, akin to the US model, underscores the importance of informing the public about the funding sources of influential media and NGOs.

In stark comparison, Russia’s 2012 foreign agent law diverges in its intent and application. This law emerged partly in response to the US government’s demand to register the US branch of Russia Today as a foreign agent. While the association between Russia Today and the Russian government was apparent, Russia Today had avoided registration by receiving formal funding from a Russian non-governmental organisation.

However, Russia’s law pursued another goal – the oppression of civil society. According to the criteria of Russian Foreign Agent Law, receiving any grant from abroad (even an insignificant amount or even from non-governmental organisations) required identification as a foreign agent, which the Russian audience perceived as similar to being a spy.

The divergence between the US and Russian approaches is noteworthy. The US law, in contrast, establishes different criteria – substantial share, consistent funding, funding from a foreign government, specific interests, etc. (e.g., funding environmental initiatives doesn’t lead to being recognised as a foreign agent). In the realm of foreign agent laws, the US precedent serves as a benchmark for balancing transparency and informed decision-making without infringing on democratic values, and the contrast with Russia’s approach emphasises the delicate equilibrium necessary to avoid stifling civil society actors.

Controversial civil society regulations

In recent times, several countries have made attempts to enact foreign agent regulations under the guise of safeguarding against foreign influence, although their primary effect has been to suppress domestic civil society.

In Georgia, protests erupted this year during an attempt to pass a law similar to the Russian one (e.g., the Georgian regulation required registration as a foreign agent if the entity’s foreign funding exceeded 20 percent).

Fears echoed through the corridors of Georgian civil society, as advocates contended that the law would not only undermine the autonomy of non-governmental organisations but could also quash the vibrancy of public discourse. The bill was withdrawn in March 2023.

In Hungary in 2017, another similar law to the Russian variant was passed, leading to the Soros Foundation relocating its offices to Berlin. The law requires civil organisations that receive funding from abroad to disclose their foreign funders with donations exceeding 500,000 Hungarian forints ($1,670). However, the highest court of the European Union deemed that this law unreasonably restricted rights and freedoms.

In Ukraine, there was an attempt to introduce such a law among the disreputable set of so-called “laws on dictatorship” adopted on 16 January 2014 and signed into law by former President Viktor Yanukovych. The laws were criticised for their undemocratic nature and their ability to significantly curb the rights to protest, freedom of speech and the activity of non-governmental organisations.

In fact, it was this package of laws that helped trigger the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity in 2014, leading to protests and the removal of Yanukovych from the presidency.

Regarding NGOs, it should be added that the requirement to disclose the sources of their funding is not so new. Most international donors require aid recipients to announce who their benefactors are clearly. So, instead, the problem lies not in the very fact of disclosing this information but in the broader circumstances.

Striking balance and promoting transparency

As the EU may explore similar legislation, the lessons from these contrasting cases illuminate the potential pitfalls and opportunities in developing effective foreign agent laws that can prevent the destructive influence of propaganda and ensure democratic principles and the protection of civil liberties.

Crucially, it’s important for the EU to focus on the objectives of the regulations rather than whether the law requires the registration of entities funded from foreign sources.

Countries can influence the politics of other nations by financing cultural initiatives, charities and NGOs promoting their own agenda. However, the need to monitor funding sources in the US in 1938 became justified only when a massive propaganda campaign spread across the country, threatening national security. It should be underlined that the activity of the organisation with foreign funds was not prohibited, but citizens were just guaranteed the opportunity to find out who financed them.

Using such a mechanism instead of a ban is proof of the government’s respectful attitude towards the citizens, as a society able to make critical and independent decisions about the information received.

Now, it is already obvious that the long-term influence of Russian financial organisations in Europe to promote their narratives, which are an integral part of the information war.

Since the EU is currently under heavy attack by Russian propaganda, Europe is in a similar position as the US was in 1938 when it suffered from Nazi propaganda. This historical parallel is quite justified for the current situation since Russia has never hidden that its ultimate target is NATO.

Transparency here is key and why so many countries have legislation on media ownership. In numerous democratic nations, it was the protection of the mediasphere which led to the emergence of the public broadcaster, which has transparent funding sources and editorial independence.

After all, professional manipulations often blend in with truthful information.

Data about funding sources is one of the best indicators to understand who and what influences the stance of non-governmental organisations, media or other opinion leaders.

If the EU adopts regulations along these lines, it will let its citizens know not only what is being said but also who is speaking in order to determine the speaker’s interests, allowing the audience to analyse and choose trustworthy sources of information.

The necessity of foreign agent legislation in the European Union is a complex issue, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Currently, EU member states have different approaches to regulating foreign influence and transparency.

The discussion about foreign agent legislation at the EU level aims to collectively address concerns about foreign influence and security within the bloc. However, the extent to which such legislation is necessary or effective can vary widely from one country to another. It also raises questions about striking the right balance between protecting national interests and ensuring freedom of expression and the ability of civil society to operate independently.

Given the diverse legal landscapes across EU member states, there is indeed a need for an open discussion on the necessity and potential implications of foreign agents legislation.

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Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Tetyana Oleksiyuk

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Tetyana Oleksiyuk is a Future of Ukraine Fellow as well as a researcher, lecturer and advisor on national legislation and international standards related to access in the information sphere. Her work has significantly contributed to improving access to information legislation and administrative practices in Ukraine by collecting information from various sources. She is an active advisor to key stakeholders, including the Ombudsperson, Council of Europe, UNDP, representatives of official authorities, the Supreme Court of Ukraine, and civil society organisations.

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