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Georgian Orthodox Church calls for boycott of Rustavi 2

25 May 2018
Giorgi Gabunia (Rustavi 2)

Georgia’s Orthodox Church has called for a boycott on TV channel Rustavi 2. In a statement on Thursday, the Church complained of being attacked by anti-Church ‘revanchist powers’, that had gained a ‘renewed force’ after 17 May — International Day Against Homophobia.

The Church identified the opposition-leaning Rustavi 2 as the most ‘vivid’ example, calling for its priests and ‘those who share Church values’ to stop communicating with and participating in the channels shows.

The Church told believers not to be ‘provoked’ and demanded the government ‘take effective and fast steps to ensure legal and other mechanisms for a policy that would defend society’, in order to avoid the ‘danger of uncontrollable processes’.

The statement followed the 22 March episode of talk-show Archevani on Rustavi 2, in which artist Lia Ukleba’s controversial painting of the Virgin Mary with a toy pistol held to her head was displayed. The show’s anchor, Giorgi Gabunia, used the artwork to argue against a bill initiated by the ruling Georgian Dream that would allow courts to ban distribution of artworks ‘violating others’ rights’.

[Read more about the debated bill on OC Media: Georgian creative work ‘censorship bill’ comes under fire]

Several senior members of the clergy have openly voiced support for the Church’s statement in their public sermons. Ruisi and Urbnisi Metropolitan Iobi cursed Gabunia as a ‘servant of Satan’ and demanded Rustavi 2 be shut down. Archpriest Shio Mujiri — appointed in November 2017 as a ‘locum tenens’, a substitute ruler who would temporarily take over if ageing Church head Patriarch Ilia II falls ill or dies — identified a ‘certain blasphemous TV show’ as part of an anti-Church campaign ‘similar to Bolshevik’ anti-religious ‘violence’.

Parliamentary opposition party the Alliance of Patriots, whose MP Emzar Kvitsiani lodged a bill against ‘insulting religious feelings’ in April, also supported the Church’s statement. Party leader Irma Inashvili promised on her public Facebook page that their members will refuse to participate in interviews on Rustavi 2.

Speaking to Rustavi 2, Khatuna Samnidze of the Republican Party said that with their statement, the Church ‘proved itself one of the regressive institutions in Georgia which directly urges the government to censor dissenting voices’.

Gabunia caused a similar controversy in March on his show P.S. also on Rustavi 2, joking that if Jesus were in Georgia, he would not have been crucified as there are no trees left — a reference to former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s frequent transplantation of rare big old trees for his arboretum collection.

Police later arrested six members of the far-right March of Georgians for attacking Gabunia’s co-workers, as protesters blocked the TV anchor from exiting Rustavi 2’s premises. On 25 March, March of Georgians leader Sandro Bregadze also vowed to decline Rustavi 2 interviews and urged other members to do the same.

[Read more about these developments on OC Media: Rustavi 2 journalists attacked by far-right group for joke about Jesus and Ivanishvili and Ivanishvili’s tree collecting hobby]

In March, Rustavi 2 reprimanded Gabunia for his on-air joke, but Director Nika Gvaramia refused to apologise for the latest show and warned that the Church will be responsible for any violence against employees of Rustavi 2.

The Georgian President’s parliamentary secretary, Ana Natsvlishvili, also stressed that all media outlets and journalists should be safe from violence, adding that Georgia is a ‘secular, not theocratic’ country, where ‘censorship is unacceptable’.

‘When there is no love, then there should be fear’

In its statement, the Church also claimed there was an attempt to portray it as ‘pro-Russian’, and Georgian society as antagonistic to free thinking. The Church also criticised human rights advocates and the non-governmental sector for its ‘selective justice’, as they ‘stay silent’ when the Church and its parish are offended. The Church also called on international organisations and foreign donors that ‘spread Western values in Georgia’ to step up and ‘show society that European Democracy does not mean neglecting[…] the religious feelings of the vast majority of the people’.

Tamar Kintsurashvili, head of the Tbilisi-based Media Development Foundation said that ‘the majority does not need protection’. ‘It is the minority that needs protection from the dictate of the majority. That’s the basis of human rights’, Kintsurashvili told OC Media.

Kintsurashvili said that conservative attitudes are normal to every society, but that legal restrictions like the bill proposed by the Alliance of Patriots against insulting religious feelings, ‘which unfortunately was greenlighted by the Legal Affairs parliamentary Committee’, as well as a draft bill ‘intervening in creative freedom’ initiated by members of Georgian Dream were another matter. ‘If the Church’s statement is a suggestion for the ruling party to streamline these bills, then we are moving to a very dangerous stage which would not only endanger freedom of expression but could also have a chilling effect on other media eager to criticise power’.

Sulkhan Saladze, head of local rights group the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA), said that the Church’s demand for ‘measures’ was too vague to comment on and that the most important issue is what the government’s position is. ‘I expect the government will stick with the principle of freedom of speech and freedom of expression and not adopt any legal measure that might lower the standards of free speech and freedom of expression’, Saladze told OC Media.

On Friday afternoon, Gia Volski, a prominent MP from Georgian Dream, criticised ‘provocative’ TV programmes for attempting to portray the Church ‘as a supporter of aggression’, but also added that ‘no legal amendments are being considered’.

Mikael Botkoveli, secretary of Ilia II, clarified the Church’s position on 25 March. ‘If there is love, fear is not needed. However, when there is no love, then there should be fear… If a person is not stopped by the principle of not offending the religious majority or anyone at all, then probably it’s better to think about amending the law, qualifying such action as a criminal offence’.

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