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Georgian creative work ‘censorship bill’ comes under fire

25 May 2018
Tbilisi City Court (Facebook)

Georgia’s parliament is to discuss a controversial bill which critics say will enable censorship. The bill, initiated by MPs from the ruling Georgian Dream party, would allow the courts to ban the distribution of creative works if they ‘violate others’ rights’. A number of local rights groups and the Public Defender have warned that law is too broad.

The bill’s authors, Eka Beselia and Levan Gogichaishvili from parliament’s Legal Issues Committee said that the need for the legislative amendments stems from the constitutional changes adopted earlier in the spring.

An earlier version of the constitution stated that prohibiting the distribution of creative works was unlawful unless they ‘violated others’ rights’ but did not specify who could enforce this. The new amendments specified that such a ban could only be issued by the courts, which was widely seen as a positive change.

After the constitution changed, parliament was obliged to reflect those changes in legislation. The bill suggests amendments to the Law On Culture and states that distribution of a creative work cannot be banned unless it ‘violates other people’s rights and lawful interests, incites hatred on the grounds of nationality, ethnicity, religion, or race, preaches war and violence, or propagates pornography’.

Giorgi Gotsiridze from the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, a local right’s group, said this paragraph could be used as a tool for censorship, as it does not provide a test for how real a danger a piece of work actually poses to others’ rights.

‘This is problematic because it doesn’t provide a test for how imminent and real the danger is. The court could potentially ban a creative work without proving that if distributed it could genuinely create grounds for violence’, Gotsiridze told OC Media.

He said that such a test is not included in the current Law on Culture either but since the prohibition could previously not be enforced, it was a ‘dead norm’. As the new bill would provide an enforcement mechanism, it must also include a test, Gotsiridze said.

‘In order to restrict free speech and expression, the government must prove that a call for violence [in a creative work] poses a real and imminent danger. Without this, the court may be able to issue ungrounded censorship’, said Gotsiridze.

On 24 May, the Public Defender’s Office issued a statement describing the bill as ‘incompatible with the Georgian constitution’ and ‘restrictive of creative freedom’

‘The bill provides the possibility for intervention and censorship of a creative process, which contradicts an absolute prohibition [on this] determined by the constitution. In terms of distribution of such work, the constitution determines a single ground for restriction [if the work ‘violates others’ rights’], but the bill goes even further offering an unlimited list, which also contradicts the constitutional standard’, the Public Defender’s statement read.

It also said that ‘other’s rights’, as is indicated in the constitution, is too broad and should not become the legal grounds for restricting distribution of a creative work. The term should concern only certain rights, the statement said.

The bill’s authors have denied that this is a problem. On 2 May Eka Beselia told Rustavi 2 that the legal standard is being raised with the bill, given that it now defines the body authorised to issue a ban. According to her, the current legislation could give such mechanisms to any administrative organ. But rights groups have argued that the current legislation, in fact, does not provide such authority to anyone.

‘Insulting religious feelings’

The bill comes in light of several controversies in Georgia which critics have labelled censorship. On 24 April, Parliament’s Human Rights Committee head Sopio Kiladze announced the creation of a working group to develop a bill against ‘insulting religious feelings’. The bill was co-authored and supported by two conservative Georgian groups.

The bill would impose fines or jail time for those convicted of ‘insulting religious feelings’, but according to Emzar Kvitsiani, one of the co-authors, it would not apply to the preachings or sermons by religious figures.

In its current form, the bill would punish publicly expressing hatred towards ‘religious sanctities’, a religious organisation, a cleric or parish, or publishing/displaying material which aims to ‘insult religious feelings’. The penalties suggested in the bill for this were a fine or up to a year in jail. Vandalising religious buildings or other sanctities would be punished by imprisonment of up to two years.

[Read more about the bill on OC Media: Georgia’s Rights Committee supports bill against ‘insulting religious feelings’]

Earlier in May Tbilisi City Court fined Georgian condom brand AIISA ₾500 for ‘unethical’ condoms packaging designs. AIISA has been instructed to remove the products from sale and to cease all marketing activity for them. The ban concerns packaging designs for three condoms and one promotional poster.

The case began after conservative political party Georgian Idea requested Tbilisi City Hall intervene against AIISA’s condoms, including those depicting medieval Georgian Queen Tamar, who is recognised as a saint by the Georgian Orthodox Church. The City Hall took the case to court arguing that it violated a law on advertisements as designs were ‘inappropriate’ and ‘unethical’.

[Read more about the latest freedom of expression controversy in Georgia on OC Media: Georgian condom brand fined ₾500 for ‘unethical’ designs]

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