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GEORGIA: FREE-SPEECH DEBATE SWIRLS IN TBILISI OVER PATRIARCH PARODY

04.11.2009
Molly Corso

The Georgian government is conducting an investigation into a series of video clips posted on Facebook that insult the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II. The clips are fueling a debate about the boundaries of freedom of expression in Georgia.

The video, published on YouTube by a "Mama Buasili" (which translates into English as Father Hemorrhoids), was posted on the Facebook page of Tea Tutberidze, the chairperson of the pro-government think-tank, the Liberty Institute. Tutberidze says that she posted the video as part of a discussion after Ilia II told a group of teachers that the 2008 war with Russia was a mistake that could have been avoided. The clip that has attracted the most attention features a dubbed-over voice of the patriarch using profanities to urge listeners to "get together and [expletive deleted] Saakashvili!"

An official investigation into the creation and distribution of the clips began on November 1, said Khatuna Iosava, a spokesperson for the General Prosecutor’s Office. The clips’ status as a "topic of interest" for society prompted the investigation, Iosava said. Ilia II is arguably Georgia’s most influential public figure and a powerful symbol of the country’s national identity.

Two individuals -- identified on the Ministry of Justice website as a school teacher and a student -- were brought in for questioning on November 1. Computer equipment and videos were also seized, according to a report posted on the site. Tutberidze told EurasiaNet that she was also questioned in connection with the clips.

General Prosecutor spokesperson Iosava stressed that officials so far have not opened a criminal investigation, adding that no one has been arrested. She added, however, that the investigation "would show" if any arrests will be warranted.

A spokesperson for Ilia II told EurasiaNet that the investigation did not come at the behest of the church. "We are not asking them to open a case," Father Davit Sharashenidze said, adding that he had not even been aware that an investigation had been launched.

In an earlier statement about the videos, Ilia II had called on believers not to pay attention to "this silliness." He also asserted that the clips were intended to destroy trust in the Church in a bid to undermine "the Georgian state’s foundation."

Tutberidze called the investigation "completely absurd" and groundless.

"There is nothing criminal about the videos," she said. "They are all an expression of freedom of speech... which is protected by the Georgian law." Some 200 individuals have registered with Tutberidze’s Facebook page to show their support, she claimed.

A planned November 1 debate on Georgian Public Television between supporters of Tutberidze and the patriarch was cancelled for reasons that remain unclear.

Public sentiment appears sharply divided over the controversy, which also touches on questions of Russian influence over Georgian society. Critics of the Georgian Orthodox Church have long suspected the institution’s commitment to democratic values. They also look askance at the Georgian church’s strong spiritual ties to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Helping to foster questions about Georgian-Russian church ties were comments made in October by Ilia II, who stated that the 2008 war with Russia could have been avoided. Some experts saw the patriarch’s words as a swipe at President Mikheil Saakashvili. Church representatives vociferously deny that strong Georgian-Russian church relations exerts influence on the Georgian patriarch’s positions.

In many hard-scrabble regions of Georgia, support for the patriarch tends to run strong. There, Ilia II, who has served as patriarch since 1977, is often viewed as the defender of Georgia’s sovereignty, who must be protected against attacks on his dignity -- even to the extent of jail terms for the video clip authors.

In Tbilisi, opinions tend to be more divided over the issue. A commentary published in the biweekly Liberali (Liberal) argued that the "religious-patriotic hysteria" over the clips has reached its "apogee." In a call for tolerance of divergent views, the writer identified himself alternatively as Armenian, African, Chinese, Meskhetian Turk, homosexual and lesbian -- groups that often are verbally abused in Georgian society. The author of the article has been identified as Basil Kobakhidze, a defrocked orthodox priest.

[Editor’s note: Liberali receives funding from the Open Society Georgia Foundation, which is part of the Soros Foundations Network. EurasiaNet operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, another part of the Soros network.]

Gia Nodia, a political scientist and a former minister of education under the Saakashvili administration, is among those who are alarmed by the investigation into the video clips. He asserted that the investigation is delivering a "serious blow" against freedom of speech in Georgia.

"[This is the] first time when the government has made some kind of motion basically against freedom of the Internet, and [has tried to establish] the precedent that the dignity of a certain person is considered... grounds for investigation," Nodia said. "It is a very bad precedent in both ways."

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