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Georgian Journalist's Jesus Joke No Laughing Matter To Far-Right Group, Sparks Brawl

Rustavi-2 moderator Giorgi Gabunia (file photo)
Rustavi-2 moderator Giorgi Gabunia (file photo)

Did you hear the one about the Georgian TV presenter, Jesus, and tree-collecting ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili?

A group of far-right activists did, and they didn't find it funny.

Instead, they sparked a parking-lot brawl that landed six of them in jail and one journalist in the hospital after the on-air comment.

The incident started on March 18 when moderator Giorgi Gabunia quipped during a show on Rustavi-2 television that Christ should have come to the Georgian region of Ajara in two or three years instead of Israel 2,000 years ago, since there won't be any trees left to make crosses from.

The comment was an allusion to the billionaire Ivanishvili, who has stepped away from politics but is still seen as wielding enormous power through his contacts. Ivanishvili, who keeps exotic animals including penguins and lemurs, has a well-documented hobby of moving giant trees from Ajara and other areas to a personal arboretum he is curating in Ureki.

The next afternoon, dozens of members of the March Of Georgians, a group espousing xenophobic, homophobic, and Islamophobic views whose members have rallied against immigration and Western-funded NGOs since its establishment in 2017, showed up at the television station.

Tensions quickly spilled over into violence, with activists jumping on cars and attacking two other journalists, Davit Eradze and Davit Kakulia. Eradze was taken to the hospital with minor injuries.

"Gabunia is a provocateur! What was on the air is an insult to the feelings of believers and an insult to Christ," Sandro Bregadze, one of the leaders of the March Of Georgians movement, said.

For its part, Rustavi-2's general director, Nika Gvaramia, said Gabunia had been reprimanded for his comments.

Gvaramia said that the activists' actions were "a criminal offense" and that the attack was not just on his journalists, but on freedom of speech in general.

Gvaramia also apologized to "every believer whose [religious] feelings were insulted," though he added that he did not consider March Of Georgians to be a religious group.

The Georgian Patriarchate said in a statement that Gabunia's joke was "a challenge to the society with its brazen, sarcastic, and cynical nature."

"We cannot support violence, but at the same time, we call for strict reaction from the government so that the believers do not have a feeling of injustice and insecurity," according to the statement. "Freedom of expression is one of the main pillars of a democratic society and of human rights protection, but this right carries responsibility [as well] and is related to protecting others' rights and freedoms."

A group of eight civil-society organizations, united under the No To Phobia coalition, however, countered that under no circumstances was it unacceptable "to limit freedom of expression on the grounds of preventing the so-called insult of religious feelings."

"We respond to the developments in the building of Rustavi-2 on March 19 and call on law enforcement agencies to have a strict policy toward any action that contains violence against the interference of journalistic activities and, in general, the freedom of expression," it said in a statement.

Last year, Human Rights Watch warned of potential government interference in Rustavi-2, the country's biggest independent television station, and a reduction in the space for critical opposition in the media.

With reporting by Current Time TV

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