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Georgian parliament speaker signs bill into law that critics say restricts media freedom

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The speaker of Georgia’s parliament said he signed a law Monday that resulted in weeks of demonstrations by critics who say it would limit media freedom and jeopardize the country’s chances of joining the European Union.

President Shalva Papuashvili acted after parliament, controlled by the ruling Georgian Dream party, overrode a veto on the bill. by President Salomé Zourabichvili.

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

Zourabichvili, increasingly in disagreement with the ruling partyhad opposed the bill, accusing the party of endangering Georgia’s future and “hindering the path to full membership in the free and democratic world.”

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

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

The government says the law is needed to stem what it sees as harmful foreign actors trying to destabilize the South Caucasus country of 3.7 million people. Many journalists and activists say its real aim is to stigmatize them and restrict debate in the run-up to the legislative elections scheduled for October.

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

Opponents have denounced it as “Russian law” because it resembles measures imposed by the Kremlin to suppress independent news media, nonprofits and activists. They believe the move may have been motivated by Moscow to thwart Georgia’s chances of further integration with the West.

Zourab Japaridze, leader of the opposition Girchi-More Freedom party, said the aim of the law was to “cleanse this country of the non-governmental sector, critical media and opposition parties, and return 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 villains of our country have been defeated,” he said, adding that “now the law has already come into force and we must all act pragmatically, with composure and put aside emotions useless.”

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

The legislation is almost identical to a measure the ruling party was forced to withdraw last year after massive street protests. New protests once again gripped Georgia as the new bill was this time adopted by Parliament. Protesters clashed with police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them.

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

“If non-governmental organizations and the media want to participate in the decision-making process and influence the lives of the Georgian people with funding from foreign governments, they must meet minimum standards 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 report their finances for the past year.

The Civil Society Foundation of Georgia, a nongovernmental group, said Thursday it was preparing to challenge the legislation before the Constitutional Court of Georgia.

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

The EU offered Georgia candidate status in December, while specifying that Tbilisi must implement key policy recommendations for its candidacy to progress.

After the bill passed last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that travel sanctions would be imposed on officials “responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia.” He expressed hope that the Georgian government will reverse course and “take steps to move forward with its country’s democratic and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”

The United National Movement describes the law as part of Georgian Dream’s efforts 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 difficult since Georgia became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In 2008, Russia fought a brief war against Georgia, which had tried unsuccessfully to regain control of the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Moscow then recognized South Ossetia and another breakaway province, Abkhazia, as independent states and strengthened its military presence there. Most countries around the world consider these two regions to be part of Georgia.

Tbilisi has severed diplomatic ties with Moscow and the status of these regions remains a major irritant, although relations between Russia and Georgia have improved in recent years.

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