The below signatory civil society organizations disapprove of the legal draft submitted to the Parliament that, if passed, would sanction statements insulting religious sentiments.
The Parliament of Georgia is currently reviewing a bill that would qualify the public expression of hateful messages towards sacred objects, religious organizations, clergymen or worshippers by an individual, and expressions that aim to hurt religious sentiments, as an administrative offence. We believe that the bill falls short of constitutional and international human rights standards, and would limit freedom of expression and the development of a pluralistic, liberal and democratic society.
Regrettably, the bill has been processed by Parliament in violation of procedural regulations, as this specific provision was not included in the initially proposed draft amendment and was inserted into the text only during the second hearing of the draft. This prodcedure has also decreased the openness of the drafting process and the public's ability to contribute and react to it.
The bill under consideration does not offer any wording that would establish a standard of imminent and essential threat of violence with the intensity that matches an administrative offence during such public expressions. We believe that such a legal provision, if enacted, will place arbitrary and unjustified restrictions on freedom of expression in terms of its content, and will jeopardize free public debates in society. The placement of such restrictions is especially unacceptable in view of the challenges of secularism that require the rationalization of public debates and processes related to authority and religion.
The bill is in direct conflict with the standards established by the ECHR and the Georgian Constitutional Court by placing restrictions on freedom of expression, considering that
1. In its case law, the ECHR has found that freedom of expression constitutes an essential foundation of a democratic society and a key conditions for its progress and for each individual's self-fulfillment. It is applicable not only to information or ideas that are favorably received or regarded as inoffensive but also to those that offend, shock or disturb. Pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness are hallmarks of a democratic society. Restrictions on freedom of expression should be permissible in certain exceptions only and should be applied narrowly.
According to the Constitutional Court of Georgia, the state enjoys sharply limited discretionary powers when placing restrictions on freedom of expression in terms of its contents.
In one of the cases, the Court ruled the following: "the state in general is prohibited from restricting freedom of information on grounds that certain information or ideas may be emotionally hurtful or promote unacceptable behavior. Individuals have the right to receive and impart ideas, and make their own judgments about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable."
2. When assessing possible conflict between freedom of expression and freedom of religion, the ECHR explained: "Those who choose to exercise the freedom to manifest their religion, irrespective of whether they do so as members of a religious majority or a minority, cannot reasonably expect to be exempt from all criticism. They must tolerate and accept the denial by others of their religious beliefs and even the propagation by others of doctrines hostile to their faith."
3. Further, the Constitutional Court explains when legal liability may be imposed for committing violence and/or making calls for violent action. According to the Court, it is important for both law and practice to differentiate between expressions that may contain hate speech but are harmless and part of political, social or scientific discourse, and calls when their author has realized their possible consequences and is aiming at these consequences. [...] clearly the fact that call has been made is not sufficient for holding individual liable but rather, an act of violence and/or criminal action or imminent threat of such action must be evident. [...] Making of calls shall result in the imposition of legal liability only when an action (calls made by) an individual [...] create clear, direct and essential threat of illegal consequences.
In this light, the below signatories urge the parliament against adopting the bill, and in general, to ensure public access and the inclusive nature of discussions about issues of particular public importance and sensitiveness in the legislative body.
Institute of Tolerance and Diversity, TDI
Article 42 of the Constitution
Georgian Democratic Initiative, GDI
Georgian Young Lawyers' Association
Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center
Transparency International Georgia
International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy
Civic Education Fund
Media Development Foundation, MDF
Network of Information Centers