Why did the bill to curb “foreign influence” in Georgia spark protests against the country’s media freedom?

Georgia has been hit by massive protests sparked by a proposed law that critics see as a threat to media freedom and the country's aspirations to join the European Union

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgia has been hit by massive protests sparked by a proposed law that critics see as a threat to media freedom and the country's aspirations to join the European Union.

Here's a look at the bill and the protests it sparked:

What is the new bill?

The bill requires media, non-governmental organizations and other non-profit organizations to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20% of funding from abroad.

Lawmakers approved a second reading of the bill on Wednesday, and the third and final reading is expected later this month.

The proposed law is almost identical to the one the ruling Georgian Dream party was forced to withdraw last year after street protests.

What do the supporters and opponents of the bill say?

The ruling party says the bill is necessary to curb what it sees as harmful foreign influence on the country's political scene and to prevent unidentified foreign actors from attempting to destabilize the country's political scene.

The opposition denounces the bill as “the Russian law” because Moscow uses similar laws to stigmatize independent news media and organizations critical of the Kremlin. Opponents of the bill say the fact that it is now before parliament is a sign of Moscow's alleged influence over Georgia. They fear it could become an obstacle to the country's long-sought prospects of joining the European Union.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, increasingly at odds with the ruling party, has vowed to veto the bill, but Georgian Dream has a sufficient majority to override a presidential veto.

What is the state of relations between Russia and Georgia?

Relations between Russia and Georgia have been tense and turbulent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

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

Tbilisi has severed diplomatic ties with Moscow and the status of separatist regions remains a key issue, even as relations between Russia and Georgia have improved in recent years.

The opposition United National Movement accuses the Georgian Dream party, founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who became rich in Russia, of serving Moscow's interests – an accusation that the ruling party vehemently rejects.

How did the protests go?

For several days, thousands of demonstrators besieged the parliament building to block the passage of the bill and clashed with police.

Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Over 60 demonstrators were arrested and several people were injured. Among the injured was Levan Khabeishvili, leader of the United National Movement.

On Thursday, Parliament canceled its planned session, saying the move was due to damage to the building during Wednesday's protests.

What is the EU's position?

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called Parliament's move “a very worrying development” and warned that “the final adoption of this law would have a negative impact on Georgia's progress towards the EU.”

“This law is not in line with the EU’s core norms and values,” Borrell said in a statement last month. “The proposed legislation would limit the ability of civil society and media organizations to operate freely, could limit freedom of expression, and unfairly stigmatize organizations that provide benefits to Georgian citizens.”

Anna Harden

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