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Georgia looks at new law on libel at behest of newly-elected president

The civil sector sees looming dangers to free speech in the country

Defamation was one of the topics touched on by recently elected Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili at her first press conference.

She stated that the value of freedom of speech in Georgia is “conceived of in a distorted manner”, and that it is necessary to adopt a law on defamation.

Zurabishvili claims that the text of the current law is vague, and that discussions as to how to amend the law have been launched within the presidential administration.

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President Zurabishvili has invited NGOs and civil society to engage in discussions, saying that there are numerous examples of countries that have been able to balance the issue of freedom of speech and slander:

“[There’s] France which passed a law against libel – the French Constitutional Court ruled that the adopted law does not contradict the freedom of speech and other freedoms guaranteed by the Declaration of Human Rights,” she said.

This is the second time in a week that the demand for the regulation of freedom of speech has been voiced.

In 2019, the patriarch of Georgia touched on this issue on 7 January in his Christmas epistle, stating that the “freedom of speech is abused”.

Parliament Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze responded to the  statements of the patriarch and the president, and stated: “Slander has become a serious problem requiring the adoption of necessary measures.”

Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze has also welcomed the adoption of the law on libel:

“In developed countries, there is a serious fight against fake [news] and slander… And we, with the participation of the non-governmental sector, must be able to cope with this problem.”

The response of the civil sector

After statements by influential politicians and the patriarch were made, journalists and NGOs have little room to doubt that the authorities are going to toughen the law on defamation.

Director of the Charter of Journalistic Ethics of Georgia, Nata Dzvelishishvili, told Radio Liberty that discussions about the infringement of freedom of expression have taken a serious turn, although she also believes that the authorities will be unable to replace the current progressive legislation if civil society and the international community team up.

“Given the state of modern technology, and [given that we have] algorithms that control social media, it is impossible to limit the freedom of expression if there is no desire to turn our state into a kind of, say, Turkey,” says Dzvelishishvili.

What will happen if defamation becomes a criminal offence? Lawyer Giorgi Mshvenieradze, a founder of the Democratic Initiative of Georgia, says the effect will be regrettable – opposition-minded media might become more cautious and lose their critical edge if they know they may face legal reprisal.

“And this is already a step backwards, away from democracy,” says the lawyer.

The current legislation

Under the current law, libel has not been punishable by imprisonment since 2004. The law on freedom of speech and freedom of expression governs issues of defamation.

Libel is a matter of civil dispute in Georgia. In the course of the dispute, the plaintiff is responsible for proving that the information is false. If the applicant manages to win the case, the court may oblige the slanderer to publish a refutation and to compensate the victim for moral damages.

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