After mass protests, Georgia withdraws bill seen as curbing media and other freedoms
Ruling party acknowledges ‘controversy in society’ over ‘foreign agent’ legislation that critics said would stifle media freedom and civil society
Georgia’s ruling party said Thursday it was withdrawing a draft law from the parliament criticized as potentially stifling media freedom and civil society, after several days of massive protests against it.
The Georgian Dream party and its allies said they were withdrawing the proposed law, citing “controversy in society” it triggered.
The bill would have required media and nongovernmental organizations that receive over 20 percent of their funding from foreign sources to register as “agents of foreign influence.” Its opponents argued that it was inspired by a similar law Russia enforces to suppress dissent and that it could hinder Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO and the European Union.
The withdrawal came after several days of mass protests in the country’s capital, Tbilisi. The demonstrations culminated on Wednesday night, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets in the city center. Police brutally dispersed the rally, using water cannons and tear gas, and 133 protesters were arrested, according to the country’s Interior Ministry.
Lawmakers said in a statement on Thursday morning that “consultations were held between the political council of Georgian Dream, People’s Force and deputies of the parliamentary majority” and they acknowledged that the bill, which passed its first reading earlier this week, “has caused controversy in society.” For this reason it has been decided to unconditionally withdraw the bill “without any reservations.”
The statement argued, however, that the initiative was presented “in a negative light,” and “a certain part of the population” was misled.
“The bill was labeled falsely as a ‘Russian law’ and its adoption in the first reading was presented in the eyes of a part of the public as a departure from the European course,” lawmakers said.
This is going to be iconic. #Tbilisi #Georgia pic.twitter.com/6zv7Md5mE2
— (((Tendar))) (@Tendar) March 7, 2023
“For as long as there are no guarantees that Georgia is firmly on a pro-Western course, these processes will not stop,” a group of opposition parties said in a joint statement, announcing a fresh rally on Thursday evening.
“We demand that dozens of protesters that were arrested be immediately released,” Tsotne Koberidze of the opposition Girchi party said, reading out the statement at a news conference.
The proposed law did appear similar to one enacted in Russia in 2012 that has been used to shut down or discredit organizations critical of the government. The bill’s authors said it was needed for the transparency of the work of entities financed by representatives of foreign states, but opponents saw it as potentially obstructing Georgia’s stated intention of joining NATO and the European Union.
European Parliament members Maria Kaljurand and Sven Mikser, top figures in relations with Georgia, said the proposed law “goes directly against the Georgian authorities’ declared ambition to receive candidate status for EU membership.”
Georgia’s president, Salome Zurabishvili, had said she would veto the bill. Parliament speaker Shalva Papuashvili on Wednesday asked for the measure to be assessed by the Venice Commission on constitutional law of the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights body.
The EU delegation in Georgia on Thursday welcomed the announcement of the withdrawal of the bill.
“We encourage all political leaders in Georgia to resume pro-European reforms, in an inclusive and constructive way and in line with the 12 priorities for Georgia to achieve candidate status,” the delegation’s statement said.
Khatia Dekanoidze, a parliament member from the pro-Western United National Movement party, also welcomed the move and said that “our children managed to achieve this.”
The European Union and the United States had criticized the legislation as a blow to Georgian democracy and the Black Sea nation’s bid to join the European Union and NATO.
Concern has been growing that the former Soviet republic is taking an authoritarian turn and moving closer to the Kremlin.
The Kremlin said Thursday it was concerned by the mass protests.
“This is a neighboring country and even though we do not have relations with Georgia as such, nevertheless, the state of affairs there cannot but arouse our concern,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
In 2017, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was establishing a parliamentary committee to investigate the funding Israeli nongovernmental organizations receive from foreign governments. The move was seen as primarily aimed at organizations that harass IDF soldiers, support the prosecution of IDF officers in the international courts, or campaign for boycotting Israeli institutions or products.
A year earlier Israel passed into law the controversial Transparency Bill, which dramatically increased transparency requirements for fewer than two dozen Israeli NGOs that get most of their funding from foreign governments.
The NGO law was opposed by the US, and condemned by various European countries.
Netanyahu is now facing mass protests against another bout of legislation, this time aimed at drastically overhauling the judiciary.
The government’s plans include enabling itself to override the High Court of Justice if it strikes down laws, and to take control of the panel that selects all judges.
Critics have said the coalition’s proposals will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances, and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters have called it a much-needed reform to rein in an activist court.
There have been mass protests against the legislation for over two months, some of which descended into violent clashes with police.
On Thursday demonstrations were held at locations across the country, part of what organizers called a “day of resistance.”
The day was saw marches, temporary workplace strikes, the blocking of main thoroughfares, disruption of train services, and rallies outside the homes of top government officials.
Last week, protesters held a “day of disruption” around the country with a flagship rally in Tel Aviv that blocked a key intersection in the city. Police used horse-mounted cops, water cannons, and stun grenades to disperse them. The force came under criticism for treating the protesters roughly, including an officer who hurled a stun grenade into a crowd of people and is now under investigation for his actions.