Georgia government tightens grip over free speech in literature

Georgia government tightens grip over free speech in literature

Erosion of democracy, suppression of expression and cultural struggles

by Suswati Basu
0 comment

In a region plagued by authoritarian regimes and shaky democracies, Georgia was once hailed as a beacon of democracy and human rights. However, recent years have seen a worrying erosion of these values, with the government in Georgia taking alarming steps to clamp down on free speech and freedom of cultural expression. This alarming trend threatens to stifle the vibrant and independent cultural sector that has long been a source of pride for the nation.

Georgia clamps down on free speech in country.

Polina Sadovskaya, Program Director of Advocacy and Eurasia at PEN America who penned the report “Taming Culture in Georgia: Georgian Government Clamps Down on Freedom of Speech and Cultural Expression,” emphasises the stark shift in Georgia’s trajectory: “Sadly, these hopes have faded in recent years, particularly since Russia’s full–scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, as Georgian activists and experts warn that the country is headed towards authoritarianism.”

“[The visit] has left me with the strong impression that there are winds pushing against it and that they threaten  to smother it.”

Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders

Following the report, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor visited the country, noting that the Georgian Ministry of Culture had not responded to her request for a meeting. “I find it hard to fight the impression that a veneer of openness presented by the Georgian Govt masks systematic efforts to undermine HRDs and their vital, necessary work.”

Georgia’s troubling shift away from democracy and human rights

The warning signs are evident. Unfair election practices, violent suppression of protesters, attacks on journalists and independent media, obstruction of anti-corruption activists, and a growing divide between the Georgian people and their political leaders are among the growing list of concerns. A public opinion survey conducted in 2022 revealed that over 40 percent of Georgians believe their democracy is regressing.

Georgia’s application for European Union membership in 2022, ostensibly a commitment to democratic values, raised hopes. However, skepticism remains as the ruling Georgian Dream party, in power since 2012, is accused of being influenced by Russia. A controversial law proposed by the government, reminiscent of Russia’s “foreign agents’ law,” sparked widespread protests, further deepening concerns about democratic backsliding.

International actors have also criticised the trajectory in Georgia, with a specific focus on media freedom and the chilling effect of harassment and intimidation on free speech.

Government interference threatens the vibrant cultural sector

While government interference in state institutions is concerning, the threats to the cultural sector have been largely overlooked. Over the past two years, the government’s interference, harassment, and intimidation of critical voices within the cultural sphere have increased significantly, indicating a fear of an independent cultural sector.

The appointment of Tea Tsulukiani, a senior member of the Georgian Dream party, as Minister of Culture, Sport, and Youth Affairs in 2021 marked a turning point. Tsulukiani’s ministry actively undermined the independence of national cultural institutions, sparking concern among cultural figures and human rights activists.

A disturbing pattern has emerged, with the Ministry of Culture interfering in the selection and appointment of leaders in cultural institutions, undermining transparent processes, and limiting the influence of independent professionals. This has resulted in a concentration of decision-making power in the hands of government appointees, effectively silencing dissenting voices within cultural institutions.

The implications of these actions are profound. They create a chilling effect, discouraging individuals from speaking out against the government, and isolating those who dare to challenge the status quo.

Cultural rights are a cornerstone of human dignity, enabling people to express their beliefs, languages, knowledge, and arts. A culture of self-censorship and isolation is the inevitable result when governments attempt to control cultural life and suppress free expression.

Read: Book bans and literary censorship: how US is following in footsteps of Russia

The suppression of culture is a common tactic used by authoritarian governments worldwide. By co-opting cultural figures and institutions, governments seek to reinforce their agendas and silence dissenting voices. This suppression poses a significant threat to open and democratic culture.

The PEN America report sheds light on the Georgian Ministry of Culture’s infringement on cultural rights and free expression across various sectors, including literature, art, film, theatre, and cultural research. It illustrates how the Ministry has undermined independent cultural institutions and targeted individuals critical of the government.

For example, the government’s interference with the Writers’ House of Georgia, a prominent cultural institution, has led to the withdrawal of numerous works in protest. Only in spring, the Writers’ House unveiled the Museum of Repressed Writers, a lasting tribute to Georgian writers whose lives and artistic journeys were shattered by the grip of Stalinism. In a twist of fate, less than half a year later, the Writers’ House saw its former director replaced by the politically appointed figure Ketevan Dumbadze, known for their allegiance to the illiberal ruling Georgian Dream party.

Read: Michael Rosen unveils Uyghur scholar Rahile Dawut as PEN’s Writer of Courage

This abrupt change in leadership has triggered a boycott by approximately 100 prominent figures within Georgia’s literary circles, who are deeply concerned about what they perceive as “dangerous authoritarian tendencies” displayed by the Ministry of Culture. The irony of this situation has not gone unnoticed.

PEN Georgia, a literary organisation comprising over 70 Georgian writers and affiliated with the global PEN International network, characterised this development as reminiscent of the Soviet-era practice of “appointments of representatives of the Soviet state to contest juries, mandated to reject submissions incompatible with party ethos.”

The decision to include a pro-government commentator, Ioseb Chumburidze, as the government representative on the Litera contest jury raised serious concerns among writers and jury members. In response, 93 out of 110 submitted books were withdrawn by their authors in protest. Notably, all but one of the judges, Chumburidze, declined to participate. As a consequence, the Ministry of Culture retaliated by withholding funding for the award.

PEN Georgia’s response: an alternative Litera and the fight for cultural freedom

This turn of events led to the Writers’ House not hosting the Litera Awards in 2021. Instead, PEN Georgia organised an alternative Litera event in February 2022, which was made possible through a crowdfunding campaign and support from both local and international civil society donors. Former PEN Georgia President, Paata Shamugia, noted that they received over 72,000 lari (approximately $28,000) in funding, including contributions as small as one lari ($0.38) from individuals who were eager to be part of the initiative.

 “No one, even those in the literary community, knows who the jurors for this government award were.”

Paata Shamugia, former PEN Georgia President

The alternative Litera Awards recognised outstanding literary achievements, including notable figures like Rostom Chkheidze, one of Georgia’s most esteemed literary experts; Nana Abuladze, a 2022 resident at the prestigious University of Iowa’s International Writing Program; and Shota Iatashvili, a poet whose work has been translated into twelve different languages.

The Georgian government’s actions are not only inconsistent with its constitution but also with international human rights laws that protect freedom of expression and cultural rights. These actions infringe on individual rights and limit public access to diverse cultural expressions.

Read: Mongolian books face ban as part of China’s ‘cultural genocide’

The report then concludes with recommendations to the Georgian government and the international community, urging the government to respect cultural independence and the rule of law. It calls on international actors to support independent artists and cultural organisations and send clear messages in support of human rights and freedom of expression.

The struggle of free speech in Georgia is not just a bureaucratic issue but a concerted effort to impede freedom of expression and cultural rights. The international community must stand in solidarity with Georgian cultural workers and help uphold human rights in the face of growing authoritarianism.

Hence, as Salomé Jashi, the filmmaker, rightly stresses, cultural rights play a crucial role in creating fairer, just, and rights-respecting societies. Georgia’s cultural workers are on the front line of challenging authoritarianism, and the world must support their struggle.

Subscribe to my newsletter for new blog posts, recommendations & episodes. Let’s stay updated!


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated, as everything you give we put back so we can provide the best information.

Your contribution is appreciated, as everything you give we put back so we can provide the best information.

Your contribution is appreciated, as everything you give we put back so we can provide the best information.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Are you sure want to unlock this post?
Unlock left : 0
Are you sure want to cancel subscription?