Imposing a fine on Grigoriadis contradicts the practice established by the Court of Appeal and represents interference with freedom of expression
The Democracy Research Institute echoes the imposition of a fine of GEL 800 on Beka Grigoriadis for posting obscene comments on the social network, which the court considered petty hooliganism. This has not been the first case in the recent period when citizens were declared lawbreakers for expressing their opinion on social networks in an obscene manner. A while ago, the public learnt about the case of a courier who was fined for expressing dissatisfaction with the performance of Tbilisi City Hall via the social network.
Restrictions on freedom of expression of this scale, accompanied by detentions and high monetary fines, will surely become a tool for repressing critical opinion.
Freedom of expression is a pillar of democratic public order. Free expression of opinion in the public space is an opportunity for all conflicting positions to have an arena of existence and expression. Inter alia, such an arena can be virtual space and social networks. According to the ruling of the Supreme Court of Georgia,
social networks are a platform connecting people with similar interests. In addition, social networks provide an opportunity to disseminate information publicly.
Although freedom of expression is not an absolute right, according to the Constitution of Georgia, this right may be restricted only in accordance with law, to ensure the necessary state or public security or territorial integrity in a democratic society, to protect the rights of others, to prevent the disclosure of confidential information or to protect judicial independence and impartiality. The good protected by the restriction shall outweigh the harm caused by it. That is why, when considering cases related to the restriction of freedom of expression, it is important for the court to assess the context.
In accordance with Article 9 of the Law of Georgia on Freedom of Speech and Expression, the law may establish content regulation of speech and expression if it refers not to any kind of insult, but to face-to-face insult. From this point of view, the ruling No. 4/A-889-19 of Tbilisi Court of Appeal of December 9, 2019 is worth noting, according to which the dissemination of expressions of obscene/offensive content via the social network was not considered an action provided for by Article 166 of the Administrative Offences Code of Georgia (petty hooliganism) on the grounds that the said expression did not constitute an action that aimed to instantly cause an illegal act. In addition, according to the court, as there was no clear or foreseeable, narrowly targeted law, which, in the case of the use of social networks, would have established the content regulation of speech and expression relating to obscenity, the person's responsibility could not arise.
Thus, the ruling of Tbilisi City Court against Beka Grigoriadis contradicts the legal grounds for interference with freedom of expression, the Law of Georgia on Freedom of Speech and Expression and the practice of the Court of Appeal of Georgia.
It is necessary for Georgian courts, especially considering the practice of the Tbilisi Court of Appeal, to pay more attention to specific circumstances when it comes to restricting freedom of expression. Otherwise, there is an inevitable danger that the court decisions will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression on social networks, and over time will turn into a prerequisite for imposing self-censorship on social network users.
According to the Democracy Research Institute, the launch of legal proceedings by the Ministry of Internal Affairs due to the opinion expressed on the social network and the sharing of the opinion of the Ministry of Internal Affairs by the court are alarming examples of persecution of dissenting opinion. By establishing a practice similar to the Grigoriadis case, it will be impossible to protect freedom of expression with a high standard.
Ruling No. 1559 - 1462 – 2012 of January 9, 2014