From my regular column in The Moscow Times:
A seemingly harmless television contest to choose the greatest Georgians of all time has set off an unholy row over religious values and censorship between the Orthodox Church and media-freedom advocates. The dispute has again demonstrated the power and influence of the Church in Georgia, after complaints from the Patriarch caused the country’s public broadcaster to suspend screenings of the TV show to appease pious sentiments.
The concept of using a public vote to create a hit-parade of historical heroes was developed by the BBC in Britain, where Winston Churchill was the rather predictable winner. The successful format has since been emulated in many other countries; last year, Russians chose medieval leader Alexander Nevsky as their all-time favourite, with dictator Josef Stalin coming in third.
But the programme ran into controversy here in Georgia because saints were included in the list of potential choices, alongside kings like David the Builder and artists like Niko Pirosmani (pictured above). The Church demanded that the saints be removed from the list, arguing that spiritual figures shouldn’t be competing on a superficial television show. “It’s a great sin to use the names of the saints disrespectfully,” explained a Georgian religious scholar.
A group of journalism students demonstrated outside the First Channel’s studios, urging the public broadcaster to maintain its legally-enshrined independence rather than cowering before the Patriarchate – a rare moment of secular dissent in a country where the Church is by far the most respected institution and any criticism of its spiritual leader is widely seen as unacceptable.
In the same way as Georgian opposition parties obeyed the Patriarch’s call for an end to their hunger-strike protest last year, the First Channel also felt it had to compromise. The public broadcaster’s governing board suspended broadcasts of the programme and offered to change its format so that the final list of ‘greatest Georgians’ would not, after all, be ranked in order of popularity, removing some of the competitive element. One member of the board was unapologetic: “The opinion of the Patriarch is more important for me than the law,” he declared.
But the compromise hasn’t defused the controversy. Last week, religious hard-liners were collecting signatures at churches in Tbilisi for a petition to “protect our saints” by removing them from the TV show entirely. A friend who refused to sign the petition, arguing that media freedom should be upheld, was verbally abused by the campaigning Christians. It was yet another reminder that in Georgia, crossing the Church is a short-cut to trouble.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Monday, January 26, 2009
The powerful new report from Human Rights Watch accuses Russian, Georgian and South Ossetian forces of committing war crimes during the conflict here in August last year. According to this highly-detailed independent investigation based on hundreds of interviews, all sides were guilty of serious violations against innocent civilians. The allegations against Georgia (indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilian areas in South Ossetia), Russia (indiscriminate strikes on civilian areas in Georgia) and South Ossetia (ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages) are by now well-known, and have, of course, already been denied by the respective governments. But what is truly disturbing about the HRW report is the almost obscene detail of the intimate brutality of soldiers and militiamen during this short but devastating war. Uneasy reading, but essential nonetheless.