By SOPHIKO MEGRELIDZE
TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgia’s ruling party said Thursday it is withdrawing a draft law from the parliament criticized as potentially stifling media freedom and civil society, after several days of massive protests against it in the capital.
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% 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 comes 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 have been 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.
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.”
A group of activists spearheading the protests, in the meantime, said that the demonstrations would resume on Thursday evening, to demand the release of those who were arrested on the rally and close oversight of the withdrawal of the bill, which is complicated by the fact that it was adopted in its first reading.