The initiative submitted to the Parliament of Georgia by MP Emzar Kvitsiani, which provides for criminal liability for “insults to religious feelings”, causes extreme concern. Such initiative contradicts both constitutional and international standards of freedom of expression and is an attempt to suppress critical opinion in the society.
It is especially alarming that the aforementioned idea was supported by the Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee and its chairperson. Members of the Committee agree with the principle that insults to “religious feelings” should be punishable. According to news reports, while examining the draft law, MPs expressed an idea of creating a task force for improving the draft law, which will include representatives of the Patriarchate as well as other religious denominations.
The registered draft law provides for adding Article 1551 to the Criminal Code, which makes it punishable to “publicly express hatred towards religious sacred objects, a religious organization, a clergyman, and a believer and/or to publish or show materials that aim to insult the feelings of believers” as well as to “desecrate religious buildings and other religious sacred objects, to make any inscriptions on them, or to damage them.” The draft law introduces a fine and deprivation of liberty as the forms of punishment for committing the said acts.
The explanatory note to the draft law directly states that its adoption is necessitated by cases of covert and overt insults to the Orthodox Church of Georgia as well as to other traditional religions existing in the country, which have recently become frequent.
It should be noted that this is not the first attempt to restrict freedom of expression in this manner. Similar initiatives were also submitted to the Parliament in 2013 and 2016, although none of the initiatives (which established administrative liability for similar acts) gaened MPs’ support. The Platform has expressed its negative attitude to the said initiatives on several occasions. The Council of Religions at the Public Defender’s Office also responded to the initiative.
It is categorically unacceptable to impose any type of legal liability for insulting “religious feelings” for several reasons:
Such an initiative clearly contradicts Article 24 of the Constitution of Georgia which protects freedom of expression, including the expression that could be insulting and shocking for a certain part of society. According to the explanation of the Constitutional Court of Georgia (which, in its turn, relies on the European and U.S. standards), “It is not disputable that the Constitution protects critical opinion, including an opinion that may be perceived as too strict or inadequate by society.”1
The initiative is also not in line with modern European standards. The European Court of Human Rights has stated on several occasions that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights is applicable “not only to information or ideas that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.”2 The Venice Commission and other bodies of the Council of Europe also discusses about the possibility of criticizing religious ideas and about the obligation of tolerance towards such criticism.3
Any regulation or measure of liability should, first of all, protect those groups that are oppressed and discriminated by the majority. In all countries where the State imposes liability for such acts, it is designed to protect minority rights rather than to strengthen dominant groups (which already have enough instruments to protect their rights). Contrary to this, the main goal of introducing punishment by the proposed initiative is to suppress criticism that exists against the dominant religious association in the society – the Orthodox Church.
The explanatory note talks about the State’s obligation to protect religious feelings. It should be taken into consideration that neither the Constitution of Georgia nor any international convention is familiar with such right or corresponding obligation. In addition, protection of “religious feelings” is not considered a part of Article 9 of in the European Convention on Human Rights which protects freedom of religion. Thus, the State is not under any obligation to introduce such regulation, the more so in a situation when the said concept is quite vague and subjective.
It is noteworthy that the recent years have seen a number of incidents when certain groups violently expressed their discontent towards artists, writers, and journalists4 precisely on the pretext of “insults to religious feelings”. A legislative initiative that serves to suppress pluralism, discussions, and critical opinion in the society is also likely to be directed against arts and the media.
It is unfortunate that the Human Rights Committee, which is supposed to plan the priorities of the state policy for protecting the rights of minorities and work to ensure the opportunities for the enjoyment of constitutional rights (including resolution of systemic problems in this area), contributes to restriction of minority rights and suppression of healthy criticism in society.
Therefore, we call upon the Parliament of Georgia and, first of all, the Human Rights Committee to pay attention to both constitutional and international standards, as well as to the needs existing in the country, and not to support the mentioned initiative in this or any other form.
1 Judgment no. 2/482,483,487,502 of the Constitutional Court of Georgia of 18 April 2011, II, §106;
2 Handyside v. the United Kingdom, judgment of 7 December 1976, Series A no. 24, p. 23, §49 http://hudoc.echr.coe.intg?i=001-57499
3 Report of the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission), “Blasphemy, insult and hatred: finding answers in a democratic society”, October 17-18, 2008, §76, 77, 81, http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/?pdf=CDL-STD(2010)047-e; Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights, 11/06/2007, https://wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.jsp?id=1116551&Site=COE; Recommendation of the Council of Europe 1805(2007), “Blasphemy, religious insults and hate speech against persons on grounds of their religion”, §4, http://www.assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-en.asp?fileid=17569&lang=en
4 These included an attack on employees of Rustavi 2, as well as aggression that followed Lia Ukleba’s painting titled “St. Mary with a toy pistol”, etc.
Georgian Democracy Initiative (GDI)
Media Development Foundation (MDF)
Institute for Democracy and Safe Development (IDSD)
Transparency International Georgia (TI)
Baltic to Black Sea Alliance Georgia
Article 42 of the Constitution
Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS)
International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED)
Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI)