No to Phobia! about the draft law on punishability of insults to religious feelings

The “No to Phobia!” civil platform expresses an extremely negative attitude to the draft law initiated in the Parliament of Georgia which envisages introduction of administrative responsibility for insulting religious feelings. We believe that the draft law, if adopted, will considerably restrict freedom of speech and expression in Georgia and further oppress the country’s religious minorities.

It is particularly disturbing that the Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee, whose main function should be to contribute to the observance of human rights and freedoms and democratic principles, supported the draft law on the first reading.

The draft law adds Article 1661 to the Code of Administrative Offences. According to this article, an insult of a person’s religious feelings will be punishable by a fine of GEL 300, and the same action committed repeatedly will be punishable by a fine of GEL 600. Desecration of religious sacred objects and cult buildings will be punishable by a fine of GEL 500, and the same action committed repeatedly will be punishable by a fine of GEL 1,000.

The explanatory note to the draft law, as well as the discussion held in the Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee on February 2, 2016, makes it obvious that the enactment of the law aims to prohibit healthy criticism of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Thus, the proposed draft law poses considerable threats to the existence of dissenting opinion in a democratic society, which is a necessary precondition for the development of society. It is immediately obvious that the enactment of the law will cause suppression of critical opinion and will do nothing to stop incitement of religiously motivated hate in society. It will only be customized to the interests of the dominant religious group and will further deteriorate the state of religious minorities in the country, while free expression of opinion and public debates on religious topics will become practically impossible. The aforementioned is also confirmed by the fact that none of the conflicts and violent acts against minorities in recent years (Nigvziani, Samtatskaro, May 17, etc.) was followed by appropriate response by the State and the offenders were not held accountable.

It should be noted that a similar initiative was also initiated in the Parliament in 2013. At that time, the initiative was given an extremely negative assessment by NGOs that noted that “adoption of the law will impose an arbitrary and unjustifiable restriction on freedom of expression and pose a threat to free public debates in society”. 

Supporters of the draft law refer to the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights and the common European standards which, in their opinion, allow restriction of freedom of expression to this extent. In this regard, it is important to mention several circumstances:

The judgment on the case of Otto-Preminger-Institut, which was mentioned by the initiators of the draft law, was adopted by the ECHR in 1994. Despite the fact that this judgment still remains an important precedent, the calls to change and revise the double standards it establishes intensify day by day, including by judges of the ECHR.[1] In addition, the ECHR unequivocally says 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]

It should be noted that the Venice Commission, in its 2006 report, emphasized that “it must be possible to criticize religious ideas, even if such criticism may be perceived by some as hurting their religious feelings.” It is also important that “an insult to a principle or dogma, or to representatives of a religion, does not necessarily amount to an insult to an individual who believes in that religion,” and “democratic societies must not become hostage to religious sensitivities, and freedom of expression must not indiscriminately retreat when facing violent reactions.”[3]  

In 2007, Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, called on the Member States not to criminalize critical remarks against religions.[4] In addition, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe unequivocally noted that blasphemy should no longer be deemed a criminal offence[5] and that religious groups must tolerate critical public statements and debate about their activities, teachings and beliefs.[6]

The broad understanding of freedom of expression is also supported by the Constitutional Court of Georgia that has unequivocally declared that “it is not controversial that the Constitution protects critical opinion, including the opinion that may be perceived as excessively strict or inadequate by a part of the public.”[7]

It is unfortunate that the Georgian Parliament has chosen to discuss unjustifiable restriction of healthy criticism of the Georgian Orthodox Church by the public rather than seeking methods of appropriate response to attacks on religious minorities and to religiously motivated hate crimes that have recently become frequent.

We call on the Parliament of Georgia not to adopt the law that restricts freedom of expression and, by doing so, not to contribute to suppression of open and free public debates which will ultimately hinder Georgia’s democratic development to a large extent. 

Georgian Democracy Initiative (GDI)

Media Development Foundation (MDF)

Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS)

Identoba

Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI)

Sapari

International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED)

Transparency International Georgia (TI Georgia)  

Article 42 of the Constitution

European Center for Minority Issues (ECMI)

 

[1] I. A. v. Turkey, Judgment of 13 September 2005, Application No. 42571/98, Joint Dissenting Opinion of Judges J.-P. Costa, Cabral Barreto and K. Jungwiert, §8 http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-70113

[2] Handyside v. the United Kingdom,  Judgment of 7 December 1976, Series A no. 24, p. 23, §49http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-57499

[3] The European Commission for Democracy through Law (“the Venice Commission”), Report on the relationship between freedom of expression and freedom of religion, 17-18 October 2008, §76, 77, 81http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/?pdf=CDL-STD(2010)047-e

[4] Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights, 11/06/2007 https://wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.jsp?id=1116551&Site=COE

[5]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

[6] Ibid., §5

[7] Human rights and the case-law of the Constitutional Court of Georgia, 295; see quotation: Judgment of the Constitutional Court of Georgia of 18 April, 2011, No 2/482,483,487,502, Vol. II, Para 106

Feb/1603