Twenty media and human rights groups, as well as more than dozen of news outlets condemned government-proposed bill criminalizing “strife-inciting calls” and warned in a joint statement that the legislative amendment is fraught with “risk of unreasonably restricting freedom of expression and stifling criticism.”
The bill, drafted by the Interior Ministry, that “calls inciting strife, i.e. public calls for violent actions, made verbally, in written or through other forms of expression and aimed at causing enmity or discord between racial, religious, national, ethnic, social, linguistic or other groups, shall be punished with imprisonment from 2 to 5 years.”
This draft amendment to the criminal code was submitted to the Parliament last week and it has yet to be debated by the lawmakers.
“We worry that the government’s effort to regulate the freedom of expression is not aimed at protecting discriminated minority groups but instead at limiting freedom of expression and strengthening the dominant social and moral discourse,” reads the joint statement by up to forty groups, among them civil society, human rights, media freedom watchdog organizations and news outlets.
“State policy is ineffective when it comes to protecting the rights of minority groups; the state does not effectively respond to hate-motivated crimes: law enforcement agencies are passive in response to reported crimes and take little action in restoring the rights of the violated minority, or in implementing preventative measures. We thus question the truthfulness of the claim that these restrictions of the freedom of expression are to protect the discriminated groups,” reads the statement.
It says that criminal code already envisages making the racial, religious, sexual orientation or other bias motives of an offender an aggravating circumstance, but this clause “is rarely used in practice.” The statement also says that “considering the loyalty towards the dominant religious group”, referring to the Georgian Orthodox Church, as well as towards “prevalent social morals demonstrated by the government, and its frequent deviation from principles of the secular state, the government’s assertion that this piece of legislation is in the interests of discriminated minority groups does not seem credible.”
The statement also notes “ambiguity” of the proposed bill, claiming that wording such as “incitement of violent actions” and “aimed at causing enmity” is a source of broad interpretation.
“They pose the risk of abusing the norm including by controlling critics, certain groups of the society or an expression which is unacceptable to the majority… The fight against hate speech and its gradual elimination from the public space will be possible, first, by understanding the reasons behind such hatred, and by cultivating a culture of tolerance; as well as by self-regulating media organizations and enactment of high ethical standards.”
“Additionally, the state’s fight against hate speech requires, above all, regulation of the hate speech practiced by civil servants and adequate disciplinary liability to be imposed for such actions. First of all, the government should enhance this process by enacting relevant regulations in the public service,” reads the statement, which calls on the Parliament to halt considerations over the proposed bill.
Draft amendment are part of a broader package of bills, which also involves a proposal to criminalize participation in and range of other activities related to illegal armed groups abroad, as well as traveling abroad for terrorism purpose.