The draft law initiated in the Parliament of Georgia by a member of Alliance of Patriots, Emzar Kvitsiani, which envisages a fine or deprivation of liberty for offending religious sensibilities is currently at the stage of deliberations in the Parliament of Georgia. The draft law has already been approved by the Legal Department.
Emzar Kvitsiani argued in the explanatory report for the expediency of adopting such a law by invoking the practice existing in European countries. For instance, he indicates the example of 16 countries, where, as he alleges, religious insult “is punished strictly”. The following are the countries he cited: Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Island, Lithuania, Finland, Greece, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Croatia. An identical allegation is made by an online outlet called Georgia and the World, which in its article of 4 May 2018, titled Why Should we Adopt the Law on Offending Religious Sensibilities, affirms that religious insult is criminalised in a number of European Countries.
Emzar Kvitsiani’s claim is erroneous since out of 16 countries indicated in the explanatory memorandum there are no blasphemy laws at all in 9 countries. Despite the existence of such laws in the remaining 7 countries, they are virtually not applied in practice. Therefore, the statement that religious insult “is punished strictly” in these countries is untrue.
The laws on religious insult are referred to as blasphemy laws in Europe and are nonexistent in most of the European countries. The laws on blasphemy and offending religious sensibilities are applicable in authoritarian countries, where the law upholds the respective dominant state religion and places it in a preferential position vis-à-vis other religious groups. Blasphemy laws are instrumental in suppressing critical and secularist groups in such countries.
1. Blasphemy is Not Punishable in Most of the European Countries
The 2017 report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reviews laws on blasphemy in various countries around the world. According to the research, there are blasphemy laws in 71 countries. These countries are in the following regions:
The research not only identifies laws but also carries out qualitative analytical coding of their application in respective countries based on the following criteria: freedom of expression, vagueness of the law, speech and forum limitations, discrimination against groups and state religion protections.
Based on the analysis of these criteria, the committee named 10 states with most points, where blasphemy laws fail to adhere to the principles of international law. These countries were: Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Qatar, Egypt, Italy, Algeria, Comoros, Malta, Libya.
As the research outcomes demonstrate, the practical application of blasphemy laws is in breach of freedom of expression and relevant international standards in two European countries only – Italy and Malta. It is also noteworthy that the research contains the data of 2016. Malta and Denmark repealed their blasphemy laws in July 2016 and June 2017 respectively.
Each of the top five countries with the highest scoring laws has an official state religion. Blasphemy laws in these countries operate to uphold the state religion. In European countries, where blasphemy laws are virtually not enforced in practice, these laws do not discriminate against other religions and apply equally to various religious groups.
2. In Most of the European Countries, Where There are Blasphemy Laws, the Rate of Their Practical Application is Minimal
3. In Authoritative Countries, Blasphemy Laws are Used Against Minority Groups
Blasphemy laws present governments of authoritative countries as arbiters of truth or “religious rightness”. These laws are used in such countries to silence particular individuals and minority groups. Authoritative countries impose deprivation of liberty and in some cases even capital punishment for blasphemy. Secularist protest is virtually suppressed in Russia through the laws on blasphemy and offending religious sensibilities. In July 2013, a new blasphemy law went into effect. It envisages a fine up to USD 15, 000 or deprivation of liberty up to 3 years for offending religious sensibilities. The new law came into force in the wake of the arrest of the feminist group Pussy Riot on 17 August 2012 for holding a manifestation demanding the separation of the state from the church.
In Yekaterinburg, 21-year-blogger was arrested after publishing a video on YouTube showing him playing Pokémon GO in an Orthodox Church. Ruslan Sokolovsky is charged with inciting hatred and offending religious sensibilities. The penalty could reach up to five years in prison.
According to the Index on Censorship, the blasphemy law in Russia has seriously affected media organisations by restricting their freedom of expression. According to their own information, the law has turned the media into an instrument of the dominant religious organisation – the Russian Orthodox Church
4. How European Institutions and International Organisations Assess Blasphemy Laws
- European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights gives a priority to the freedom of expression. In the case of Handyside v. United Kingdom, the Court observed that: “Freedom of expression…is applicable not only to”information” or “ideas” that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend,shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broad mindedness without which there is no “democratic society”.
- The United Nations Human Rights Committee
There is also a consensus within the United Nations Human Rights Committee concerning impermissibility of punishment for offending religious sensibilities. General Comment no. 34 of 2011 on Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights explains that it is impermissible to punish for insulting religious sensibilities.
- Venice Commission
According to the Venice Commission Report, despite the presence of national legislations, blasphemy is only rarely prosecuted in European countries. The commission concludes that the offence of blasphemy should be abolished.
What is Implied Under the Article on Offending Religious Sensibilities?
In case the parliament adopts the draft law, public manifestation of hatred towards religious sanctity, religious organisations, the clergy, believers, as well as publication or displaying such materials that are aimed at offending believers’ feelings will be punishable by a fine or deprivation of liberty up to one year. Furthermore, desecration of and damaging religious constructions and buildings will be punishable under the Criminal Code and will entail deprivation of liberty up to two years.
Prepared by Sopo Gelava and Richard Baramia,
Myth Detector Laboratory