Hate Speech in Georgia: What is the Borderline between Freedom of Expression and Crime?

The Public Debate held at the Heinrich Boell Foundation on April 6, 2011 was devoted to the topic  “Hate Speech in Georgia: What is the Borderline between Freedom of Expression and Crime?” Taking into consideration the fact that Georgia does not enjoy a long discourse tradition on this topic,  with active discussion on the hate speech issue having begun only two years ago, the debates caused wide interest within  Georgian society.

The invited speakers included Journalist and the Head of the Council of the Charter of Journalism Ethics,  Zviad Koridze, Executive Director of the Civil Integration Foundation,  Zaur Khalilov, Director of the "Women's Initiatives Supporting Group", Ekaterine Aghdgomelashvili, and the  Lawyer of Constitutional Litigation, Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA),  Giorgi Gotsiridze.

At the beginning of the debate, the director of the South Caucasus Regional Office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, Iris Kempe, introduced a new project that will be implemented with the support of the European Union Delegation in Georgia. As Dr. Kempe remarked, the project was  officially launched  that day and it is directed towards vulnerable groups of society, including  religious, ethnic, sexual, or gender minorities. The project, which is coordinated by Giorgi Shubitidze, arranges media-monitoring and organizes discussions and trainings in Tbilisi as well as in  various regions of Georgia.

As for the discussion topic – "Hate Speech in Georgia" – strictly defined legislative frames on this issue do not exist.  As a result, no one is punished (there is impunity) for open and so called “oppressive” announcements made in public sphere.

According to Zviad Koridze, approaching the hate speech issue  by asking where the borderline lies between freedom of expression and crime  might lead us to  another extreme, with strict execution mechanisms in order to suppress hate speech. As he said, the reason why the small state was engulfed in a war after the demise of the Soviet Union is hugely determined by the societal-political rhetoric filled with hate speech.

Where is the hate speech being created? As Zviad Koridze remarked, hate speech is either the feature of patriarchic societies that experience a total deficit of civil values, or it is  developed within autocratic regimes of governance that try to separate society by “ours” and “yours” groups.  In the process, these forces enrich it with such stereotypes that might produce a civil conflict in the future.

The following presenter,  Zviad Khalilov,  emphasized the negative influences of  media sources in their use of hate speech. As a rule, they justify their use of such facts by arguing that “these topics are widely popular and can be easily sold within society”. However, Khalilov remarked that such argumentation does not free journalists and editors from the huge responsibility of presenting accurate information.

Another speaker, Ekaterine Agdgomlashvili, spoke about the changing dynamics of hate speech targets. As she mentioned in her report, “hate speech usage is characterized by its own dynamics; in the 1990s the target objects were ethnic minorities, later they became religious minorities, and nowadays hate speech is more widely used towards the sexual minorities.”

During the discussion following the debate, the audience raised various issues. Some of these concerns  included the mechanisms  regulating hate speech,  the role the government should play  in the process of fighting  hate speech,  and the extent to which it would be justified   to introduce strict legislative mechanisms regarding this issue. A question was also raised concerning detecting violations of such laws,  namely who would actually  be able to observe and assess whether a certain expression  qualified as hate speech or not, and whether this effort might  lead  to a restriction of freedom of expression.