Laws regulating foreign interference in India and the United States are increasingly being used to threaten press freedom and independent civil society groups, according to experts interviewed by Coda Story. 

Last week the U.S. Department of Justice ordered an affiliate of Al Jazeera to register as an agent of the Qatari government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA.

Today, the Indian parliament passed an amendment to its Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, or FCRA, which added draconian restrictions on the activities of Indian organizations which receive funding abroad. Rights activists and critics see the amendment as a politically motivated attack by the government on dissenting voices.

Both developments fit into a wider worldwide pattern: a 2019 Amnesty International report described laws against foreign interference in domestic affairs and laws restricting foreign funding as key tools states have increasingly used in a “global crackdown on civil society organizations” over the last decade.

“A political weapon”

The Justice Department’s decision requiring AJ+, an online TV channel hosted by the Qatar-owned media network Al Jazeera and backed by the Qatari royal family, to register as a foreign agent sparked an outcry from press freedom advocates.

Much of the criticism was based on suspicions that the move was made at the behest of the United Arab Emirates, which has led an economic blockade of Qatar since 2017, and has previously lobbied the U.S. to designate Al Jazeera as a foreign agent.

The Justice Department’s letter to Al Jazeera was sent the day before the U.A.E. signed diplomatic normalization accords with Israel in the White House. The timing suggested to many — including Al Jazeera itself and the National Press Club, which condemned the move — that the FARA registration was a condition of the deal, which the U.A.E. has denied.

“This seems to have been an extremely political process that borders on using FARA as a political weapon,” said Ben Freeman, director of the Center for International Policy’s Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, in an email.

He added, “It’s extremely troubling if the Department of Justice weaponized FARA at the request of a foreign power.”

Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me the Justice Department’s decision gives weight to the organization’s prior concerns about governments designating media outlets as foreign agents. Doing so, she said, “can lead to the perception that journalists are spies, and that’s not good for journalists or their safety.”

Under FARA, registered foreign agents are required to extensively document and disclose their activities on behalf of those they represent, including meetings they attend. If enforced this could severely compromise journalists’ ability to protect sources’ anonymity.

A “death blow” to India’s non-profit sector

The new amendments to India’s law regulating foreign funding of domestic organizations represent what some in the country’s already beleaguered non-profit sector have called a “death blow” to their work.

Among the many new restrictions is a ban on recipients of foreign donations redistributing money to other Indian organizations. This makes it impossible for grant-giving organizations like Oxfam to fund the work of smaller NGOs which cannot as easily do their own fundraising abroad.

The new amendment also forbids public servants from receiving any foreign funding. Since the Indian penal code defines “public servant” to include the faculty of public universities, this could have grave consequences for foreign-funded research.

Even before the new amendments, FCRA had been increasingly used to hinder the work of organizations which the government perceived as antagonistic to its policies, including Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and the Ford Foundation.

“FCRA was already a troubling piece of legislation that we feared — as it turns out, rightly — could be used to target civil society groups that opposed government policies,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch.