Litera Prize juries leave panel, authors ask culture ministry to remove its judge

  • Organised by the Writers' House of Georgia, the literary prize has involved independently selected jury panels up until this year's edition. Photo via Writers' House of Georgia., 30 Jul 2021 - 17:53, Tbilisi,Georgia

All but one judges of this year's Litera Prize in Georgia have resigned in protest, joining criticism of a jury member being appointed to the panel from the culture ministry, while nominees in the longlist of the literature prize have asked the ministry to remove its appointment.

The four out of five members of the panel left the team on Friday, citing "lack of trust" towards the contest - one of two major literary competitions in the country - resulting from the appointment of one judge from the ministry to the panel. The move follows developments on Thursday, when a number of participants of the contest removed their works from the longlist in protest of the appointment.

Oktai Kazumov, Lela Kodalashvili, Rezo Tabukashvili and Bela Tsipuria announced their decision to remove themselves from the panel, with Tsipuria telling news website the protests illustrated "distrust not only from the writers [but also] the entire Georgian society's distrust towards state processes".

In parallel developments, around 60 participants in this year's longlist - including authors, translators, designers and publishers - have addressed an open letter to minister Thea Tsulukiani, asking her to remove Ioseb Chumburidze, the one jury member appointed from the ministry.

The board of the Writers' House of Georgia, the venue organising the prize, joined the protests by calling appointment of a jury panel member from the ministry "unacceptable" and displaying support for an independently selected team - a customary process for the Litera Prize up until this year's edition.

On his part, Chumburidze reacted to the protests with a post on social media that did not directly comment on the appointment, but criticised unnamed personalities for their policies while running the organising venue. The ministry said it had no mechanisms of control over the competition in response to local reporters' questions on whether it would remove Chumburidze from the panel.

The legislative change that introduced the ministry-appointed jury member to the contest was made in a relevant regulation recently, and is seen by organisers and authors as an unwelcome departure from the competition's independence from the state ministry.

Beside the controversy around the jury member - an appointment author Irakli Kakabadze likened to the "Bolshevik method" of state authorities assigning officials to bodies overseeing cultural events or projects during the Soviet era - the protest has also seen criticisms of Tsulukiani and her policies at the ministry.

Designer Natalia Avaliani, who left the contest on Thursday, saying she would refuse to participate in any competition organised by the ministry while "a completely uncultured person and one of the principal figures of a government encouraging violence" was at its helm.

The designer's comment followed an incident that involved Tsulukiani and a reporter from the opposition-minded Mtavari Arkhi channel in Senaki last week, with the government member snatching a microphone away from the journalist while being challenged with questions ahead of the opening show of a newly renovated theatre in the town.

The incident came in the wake of some media organisations and queer activists accusing the government of intentional failure of protecting critical media, or even encouragement of attacks on journalism, following developments in Tbilisi on July 5 when right-wing groups left over 50 reporters injured ahead of a planned Tbilisi Pride queer march that was subsequently cancelled.

Launched in 2015 by the culture ministry, Litera Prize issues annual awards in six nominations, from the best novels and documentary prose to book designs of the year. The longlist of this year's nominations was revealed by the Writers' House on Monday.