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Parliament speaker in Georgia signs into law a bill that critics say curbs media freedom

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The speaker of Georgia's parliament said he signed into law Monday a measure that has drawn weeks of protests by critics who say it will curb media freedom and jeopardize the country's chances of joining the European Union.
Demonstrators with a Georgian national flag gather at the Parliamentary building during an opposition protest against the foreign influence bill in Tbilisi, Georgia, Tuesday, May 28, 2024. The Georgian parliament has overridden a presidential veto of the "foreign agents" legislation that has fueled Western concerns and sparked massive protests for weeks. (AP Photo/Zurab Tsertsvadze)

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The speaker of Georgia's parliament said he signed into law Monday a measure that has drawn weeks of protests by critics who say it will curb media freedom and jeopardize the country's chances of joining the European Union.

Speaker Shalva Papuashvili acted after the legislature, controlled by the ruling Georgian Dream party, overrode a veto of the bill by President Salome Zourabichvili.

Approved by lawmakers last month, the measure requires media, nongovernmental organizations and other nonprofit groups to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad.

Zourabichvili, who is increasingly at odds with the governing party, had opposed the bill, accusing the party of jeopardizing Georgia's future and “hindering the path toward becoming a full member of the free and democratic world.”

Ghia Nodia, a Tbilisi-based political analyst, said the new law marked a “turning point” for Georgia.

“It is leading the country away from democracy in an authoritarian direction,” he said.

The government argues the law is needed to stem what it deems to be harmful foreign actors trying to destabilize the South Caucasus nation of 3.7 million. Many journalists and activists say its true goal is to stigmatize them and restrict debate ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

“This law will stop and will kill the future of Georgia, the future of Georgia in the European Union and North Atlantic (Treaty) Organization,” said journalist Keti Tutberidze.

Opponents have denounced it as “the Russian law” because it resembles measures pushed through by the Kremlin to crack down on independent news media, nonprofits and activists. They say the measure may have been driven by Moscow to thwart Georgia’s chances of further integration with the West.

Zurab Japaridze, head of the opposition Girchi -More Freedom party, said the purpose of the law was to "cleanse this country of the nongovernmental sector, critical media, and opposition parties, and bring us to the reality that exists in Russia.”

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze dismissed the criticism as “unnecessary emotions that had only an artificial basis.”

"Only the ill-wishers of our country have been defeated,” he said, adding that “now the law has already come into force and we all have to act pragmatically, with a cool mind and put aside unnecessary emotions.”

Over the weekend, the opposition United National Movement said a crowd of masked men attacked its central offices in Tbilisi, smashing windows and damaging property. It alleged the attackers were linked to the ruling party. The Interior Ministry has opened an investigation into the property damage.

The legislation is nearly identical to a measure the ruling party was pressured to withdraw last year after massive street protests. Renewed demonstrations again gripped Georgia as the new bill made its way through parliament this time. Demonstrators scuffled with police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them.

After signing the bill, Papuashvili reaffirmed that its main purpose was to “increase the resistance of the political, economic and social systems of Georgia to external interference.”

“If nongovernmental organizations and mass media want to participate in the decision-making process and influence the life of the Georgian people with funding from foreign governments, they must meet the minimum standard of transparency — the public must know who is behind each actor,” he said.

Papuashvili said that once the new law is published on Tuesday, the Justice Ministry will have 60 days to complete the necessary formalities. After that, those affected by the law must register and declare their finances for the past year.

Georgia’s Civil Society Foundation, a nongovernment group, said Thursday it was preparing to challenge the legislation in Georgia's constitutional court.

The European Union’s foreign policy arm has said adoption of the law “negatively impacts Georgia’s progress on the EU path.”

The EU offered Georgia candidate status in December, while making it clear that Tbilisi needs to implement key policy recommendations for its membership bid to progress.

Following passage of the bill last month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that travel sanctions would be imposed on officials “who are responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia.” He voiced hope Georgia's government will reverse course and "take steps to move forward with their nation’s democratic and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”

The United National Movement describes the law as part of efforts by Georgian Dream to drag the country into Russia’s sphere of influence — a claim the ruling party angrily rejects. Georgian Dream was founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister and billionaire who made his fortune in Russia.

Relations between the two countries have often been rocky since Georgia became independent after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2008, Russia fought a brief war with Georgia, which had made a botched attempt to regain control over the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Moscow then recognized South Ossetia and another separatist province, Abkhazia, as independent states and strengthened its military presence there. Most of the world considers both regions to be parts of Georgia.

Tbilisi cut diplomatic ties with Moscow, and the status of the regions remains a key irritant even as Russia-Georgia relations have improved in recent years.

Sophiko Megrelidze, The Associated Press