Debating Defamation: Abkhazia's New Bill Proposes Harsher Penalties

The bill's amendments to the defamation article are widely criticised for their apparent pre-election motivations.

The bill's amendments to the defamation article are widely criticised for their apparent pre-election motivations.

SUKHUM / AQW'A ― In Abkhazia, a debate is ongoing over a proposed bill that seeks to toughen penalties within the criminal code's article on defamation. This bill, submitted by the presidential administration, follows a previously rejected proposal by the General Prosecutor's Office. The current proposal revisits many of the same points, including severe fines and prison terms of three to six years for those found guilty of defaming government officials.

Last week, the Parliamentary Committee on State-Legal Policy engaged deeply in discussions over this proposed amendment. Despite being championed by President Aslan Bzhania and presented by his representative Batal Aiba, the committee decided not to recommend the bill, which included stringent defamation penalties like imprisonment and substantial fines. Their discussion highlighted the need to balance penalising defamation while safeguarding freedom of expression, leading to the bill's rejection due to concerns over its broad implications. This version of the bill faced strong opposition criticism, arguing it could severely impact freedom of expression and democratic participation.

Commentary has been diverse and critical. Ibrahim Chkadua, a director and writer, voiced his concerns on the "Apsny Portal" Telegram channel, suggesting that the bill appears to be politically motivated ahead of elections. He criticised it for focusing on protecting government officials rather than citizens, and noted that the proposed penalties are outdated—particularly in the context of internet and anonymity technologies which complicate enforcement. Moreover, he pointed out that the substantial fines proposed are disproportionate to the average income in Abkhazia.

The bill has sparked widespread speculation about its utility and the motives behind it, with many wondering whether it is merely an attempt to intimidate potential critics of the government. Legal experts argue that existing laws already sufficiently protect against defamation without the need for harsher penalties. The history of defamation cases in Abkhazia, particularly post-war, suggests that such legal actions rarely result in significant consequences, often dissolving in settlements or leaving the public and judiciary polarised without clear resolutions.

This ongoing legislative effort raises important questions about freedom of speech, the balance of power, and the potential for laws to be used as political tools—issues that are particularly poignant in a small, politically divided society like Abkhazia. Commentators have also highlighted the potential for such stringent laws to backfire on those who instigate them, especially if the political landscape shifts.




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