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Patriarch’s Freedom of Speech Remarks Draw Mixed Reaction from Politicians, CSOs

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Georgian Patriarch’s Christmas epistle, which emphasized on the problem of “distorted understanding” of freedom of speech and called for restraint in “misusing” this right, drew mixed reactions from Georgian politicians and civil society organizations.

“Freedom of speech is one of the most important rights for our society, enabling individuals to voice their opinion based on their convictions, including through media and social networks … but unfortunately, it happens very frequently that freedom of speech is misused and reality is presented in a distorted manner,” Ilia II wrote in his epistle, which was read out at the Holy Trinity Cathedral just before midnight on January 6, before the Orthodox Christmas mass.

“Today, people no longer shy away from groundless accusations; lies and insults have become common. Intentional lies and defamation – the gravest form of deception – have become common as well; oftentimes, they are disguised so virtuously that people tend to believe in it – at least initially,” he added.

The Patriarch’s words received positive feedback from ruling party lawmakers, including from Parliament Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, who attended the Christmas liturgy together with Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze and President Salome Zurabishvili.

In his press remarks on January 7, Kobakhidze said he shares the Patriarch’s message. “Of course, defamations and insults that we hear in the media, social networks and other public spaces practically every day are unacceptable,” he noted.

Asked whether the ruling party plans to introduce legislative amendments on the matter, the Speaker stressed “it is yet too early to talk about it.” Later, however, he said he does not rule out legislative changes.

“Freedom of expression is absolutely crucial for us, and it should not be in any way limited with unjustifiable forms… but it is necessary to start thinking and working on it now; I do not rule out that there might be some decision adopted in the spring session,” he noted.

That there is a need for protecting “simultaneously the freedom of speech and human dignity,” was first voiced by President Salome Zurabishvili.

“We should also think about how to protect ourselves from false information and misinformation in order to bring back peace to the society and not to threaten our democracy,” Zurabishvili said in her New Year’s address on December 31.

Assessments were different in the opposition. MP Tina Bokuchava of the United National Movement said: “this is an attempt to limit the freedom of expression, but whether they will dare to act upon it, will depend on the reactions of the public.”

“Bidzina Ivanishvili has always wished to have everything in line with his desires,” she added.

MP Sergo Ratiani of the European Georgia joined in the criticism, saying there “is a reasonable suspicion that the ruling party plans to introduce restrictions.” “It is alarming that religious calls and Christmas epistle are used for restricting liberties on political grounds,” he noted.

CSO criticism

Civil society organizations met Speaker Kobakhidze’s statements with heavy criticism, suggesting it is a prelude for limiting freedom of speech and expression.

Sulkhan Saladze of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association stressed possible restrictions on freedom of speech and expression could endanger Georgian democracy. “The healthy part of the lawmakers have to voice a position that any change that will worsen the state of human rights, will be rejected by the Parliament,” he said.

Giorgi Mshvenieradze of the Georgian Democracy Initiative told Civil.Ge that statements that there have to be more regulations “means that the authorities decided to interfere with freedom of expression more extensively.”

Mshvenieradze noted that the existing legal framework establishes “absolutely reasonable balance between freedom of speech and human dignity,” and that additional restrictions “will be an infringement on individual liberties and will harm freedom of speech and the country’s democracy.”

Nata Dzvelishvili of the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics echoed the sentiments, telling Civil.Ge that the authorities’ messages are “dangerous and concerning.” Like Mshvenieradze, Dzvelishvili believes the existing legal framework establishes a right balance between freedom of expression and human dignity.

“I do not think the government will dare to criminalize defamation and return us to the pre-2004 era, but I expect that just like in the last few years, this year as well there will be initiatives of numerous forms that will indirectly affect freedom of expression,” she added.

Georgia decriminalized defamation in 2004. It was made subject to civil action and the burden of proof was placed on the plaintiff.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian) Русский (Russian)

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