The ruling party in Georgia has decided to withdraw two Russia-inspired “foreign agent” bills that would have silenced critical voices in the country.
This welcome U-turn follows massive protests against the bills in the capital Tbilisi and elsewhere in the country, as well as international condemnation from governments and outcry from human rights groups.
The bills were flawed from the beginning. They would have required individuals, independent groups, and media outlets to register with the Justice Ministry as “agents of foreign influence” if they receive at least 20 percent of funds from abroad.
They would have also imposed additional onerous reporting requirements and inspections. Violations of the law would have been both administrative and criminal, with punishments that included up to five years in prison.
The intention of these proposed laws was clearly to marginalize and discredit independent, foreign-funded groups and media that serve the wider public interest in Georgia. Their passage would have a serious chilling effect on groups and individuals working to protect human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
Like the “foreign agent” laws in Russia they were inspired by, the Georgian bills were incompatible with international human rights law and standards that protect the rights to freedom of expression and association.
The ruling party’s decision to “unconditionally withdraw the bill we supported without any reservations” is good news, but the fight is likely not over.
My colleague in Georgia, HRW’s top expert in the region Giorgi Gogia, says the mood this morning in Tbilisi is “cautiously festive.” People are excited for the win, pleased authorities backtracked on the bill.
However, the ruling party retreated not because they changed their mind about the bills, but because of the public relations disaster the bills provoked. If they think everything was just a PR problem and not a problem with the law itself, it would be no surprise to see a similar bill emerging in a new form at a later date.
We’ll be watching.