Earlier this spring, Georgia’s parliament deliberated a bill that would have required media and civil society organizations that receive more than 20 percent their funding from foreign groups to register as foreign agents. Georgia, a country in the Caucasus region at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, is trying to balance relations with Brussels and Moscow—seeking EU candidate membership status on the one hand, while adopting the Kremlin’s narrative that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a reaction to the expansion of NATO on the other. Amid this broader context, critics saw the proposed “foreign agents” law as a threat to Georgia’s democratic society and the possibility of EU membership. The bill was swiftly condemned by over 60 Georgian media outlets, domestic and international NGOs, Georgia's President Salome Zurabishvili, as well as the United States and European Union (EU). Georgian citizens took to the streets en masse, with demonstrations in the capital of Tbilisi involving some 10,000 protestors, before the bill was subsequently withdrawn.
A recent report from AidData sheds light on these events and explores whether and how countries like Georgia have been able to resist malign foreign influence, especially from Russia. In Standing Firm? Measuring Resilience to Malign Foreign Influence in European & Eurasian Media, AidData researchers Jonathan A. Solis and Vera Choo draw on diverse data sources to construct a novel index that measures the vulnerability of domestic media systems in 17 countries in Europe & Eurasia (E&E). The resulting Media Resilience to Malign Influence Index (MRMI) quantifies the interplay of three sets of actors—journalists and media outlets, citizens, and government regulators—in contributing to the strength or weakness of domestic media resilience. The report and accompanying dataset features indicators evaluating three components of media resilience for 17 countries from 2010 to 2020, as well as combining all three components into a single, top-line measure for easy comparability.
“Our work places Georgia at the top of the pile for demonstrating consistently higher media resilience in the region over time—and these recent events reinforce our findings,” said Solis, the project’s lead researcher and a Senior Research Analyst at AidData, reacting to the events.
Solis has studied media freedom and media resilience for nearly a decade. His recent academic research focuses on the factors influencing government censorship of the press, approaches to measuring media freedom, and the relationship between regime type and journalist killings. A recent article in the Journal of Human Rights co-authored by Solis and Kelebogile Zvobgo (Assistant Professor of Government at William & Mary and director of the International Justice Lab) examines the role citizens and the courts have in protecting media freedom, as seen in the events unfolding in Georgia. “In Georgia’s case, we saw strong rebukes of the proposed legislation—which would have restricted a free and open media and civil society—from Georgian citizens, media outlets, and even some in the government,” added Solis.
Average Media Resilience to Malign Influence (MRMI) Index score, 2010 to 2020
The dataset and resulting index paints a picture of not only overall media resilience, but also three different facets—citizens as content consumers, media as content producers, and government regulators who create the institutional environment for media—over time. The “content consumers” component includes indicators related to the demand-side of a media system: data on how citizens consume media and their attitudes towards it, as well as societal norms around media.
“While Georgia scored high on media resilience overall, its score for ‘content consumers,’ or how well-equipped citizens are to responsibly consume media, was actually quite low on average,” noted Solis. “However, a closer examination reveals that Georgia’s content consumers score has been increasing since 2010, and in fact rose more than any other country we examined. The richness of our dataset allows policy and decision makers, as well as researchers, to delve more deeply into underlying trends and help inform targeted programming to increase media resilience for specific countries.”
Average content consumers score, 2010 to 2020
Change in content consumers score, 2010 to 2020
“Countries that lack media resilience will fail to protect the integrity of the press, opening themselves to malign foreign influence and a rising tide of disinformation and misinformation. What we find is that bolstering media resiliency is truly a whole-of-society project: it must include citizens as responsible content consumers, media producers as robust content producers, and governing bodies that provide an enabling institutional environment for the press,” added Solis.
As a result of wide-spread condemnation and protests, the “foreign agents” bill was withdrawn on March 9. “Georgia has demonstrated resilience in the face of foreign influence and malign elements seeking to compromise the integrity of its media,” said Solis. “We saw media outlets, members of government, and especially citizens push back firmly against the law. This short-term success story shows how countries like Georgia can resist foreign intrusion in their media, by activating media consumers, producers, and regulators in a resilient media system to protest laws that would restrict the press and civil society. ”
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin’s push to influence the former Soviet Union republics on various fronts, the fate of Georgia’s media system hangs in the balance. Yet, Georgia seems in a better position than its neighbors to withstand such Russia-style legislation and attacks against its media systems.