Attacks on the Press 2007: Georgia

GEORGIA

Facing a week of massive protests in the capital, Tbilisi, President Mikhail
Saakashvili stunned Western allies in November by imposing a state of emergency, banning broadcast news reporting, closing two television stations, and deploying police to forcefully disperse demonstrators. Saakashvili defended the November 7 crackdown, saying that the protests were orchestrated by Moscow with the intention of overthrowing his government. After acceding to opposition demands for early presidential elections, Saakashvili lifted the state of emergency and the news-gathering ban nine days later. But by then, he had damaged his own reputation as a pro-Western reformer.

Protests began on November 2, when an estimated 50,000 demonstrators descended on the capital. Their initial demands for early elections and electoral changes granting more proportional representation quickly escalated into calls for Saakashvili’s resignation. Imedi TV, founded by presidential opponent Badri Patarkatsishvili, emerged as the main platform for opposition demands, and carried direct calls for the public to join in the demonstrations.

Though the size of the protests diminished daily, an angry Saakashvili lashed out by shutting down Imedi and the local pro-opposition station Kavkaziya. While coverage on other television stations was largely pro-government, the administration barred all independent broadcasters from airing news reports. As the clampdown took hold, police broke up protests in front of parliament, using tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, and water cannons, according to international news outlets. More than 500 people were injured and 32 were detained, The Associated Press reported. Local press reports said police roughed up four journalists for the television channel Obshchestvenny Veshchatel.

It was a remarkable turnaround for Saakashvili, the U.S.-educated leader who swept into office in the elections that followed the 2003 democratic uprising known as the Rose Revolution. Western allies moderated their criticism but were clearly taken aback. Washington warned that the actions could hurt Saakashvili’s plan to integrate the former Soviet republic into the European Union and NATO. Adam Michnik, the renowned Polish newspaper editor deployed by Western nations to help resolve the crisis, said that keeping Imedi off the air would be “a threat to democracy in Georgia,” Imedi resumed broadcasting in December only to suspend its own operations the same month amid internal dissent over Patarkatsishvili’s dual role as presidential challenger and media owner. Saakashvili claimed victory based on early results of the January 5, 2008, poll.

The tumult featured a fascinating cast of characters, not least of them the U.S. media baron Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation became a partner in Imedi in 2006. Murdoch publicly rebuked the Georgian government, telling the AP that he was “shocked and horrified that, in what was allegedly a democratic country, something like this could happen.”

Saakashvili came to power with promises of democratic reform. Following a brief honeymoon with the press, the administration’s intolerance of criticism, its bureaucratic secrecy, and its failure to reform a weak judiciary undermined many of the press freedom gains that followed the revolution. Public dissatisfaction with low standards of living and continued corruption caused its approval ratings to plunge.

As a result, the Saakashvili government closely scrutinized and sought to influence television reporting, the country’s most popular and influential source of news. It found success in the gradual decline of Rustavi-2 from a leading broadcaster that rallied Georgians during the Rose Revolution to a pro-Saakashvili station emphasizing entertainment. The evolution culminated in 2006, when management hired government loyalists in a staff shakeup, merged the station with two others, and sold the entity to a little-known holding company named Geotrans LLC. In October, Geotrans appointed Rustavi-2 Advertising Director Irakli Chikovani to head the station, moving the broadcaster even further from its news reporting roots, according to local news reports and CPJ research.

The government expanded its direct influence over the airwaves in September when the Defense Ministry financed the launch of a new television channel, Georgia, that was designed to promote patriotism and advocate for closer military ties with NATO, local press reports said.

Throughout the year, Imedi TV was the only private channel with national reach that directly criticized the government. Some senior politicians boycotted the channel, reflecting the administration’s view of the media as either friend or foe. In some cases, government officials obstructed Imedi journalists from reporting on politically sensitive issues. In September, police officers confiscated a camera from an Imedi crew filming the corruption-related arrest of the country’s influential former defense minister, Irakli Okruashvili. The arrest occurred two days after Okruashvili announced during an interview on Imedi that he was forming a new opposition party, according to local and Russian news reports.

Regional media outlets that criticized local authorities faced retaliation and harassment. Throughout 2007, the Trialeti television company in the central city of Gori faced a campaign of harassment because the station criticized regional governor Mikhail Kareli, according to local press reports. Journalists and media executives from Trialeti received anonymous telephone threats, were barred from local government buildings, and stopped receiving government press releases, while their appeals for protection to police and prosecutors were ignored, the reports said. Trialeti also lost several advertising contracts, and its headquarters was vandalized.

Georgia has progressive press laws—such as a 2004 measure decriminalizing libel—but authorities have not consistently followed the letter or the spirit of these laws. Government officials, for example, effectively ignore the freedom of information law, with uncooperative press officers and outdated Web sites making it hard for journalists to obtain basic information about the work of state agencies, according to local press reports. Journalists reported that the powerful Defense Ministry is particularly secretive, and often bars critical journalists from press conferences.

The Georgian National Communications Commission—a media regulatory body whose senior members are appointed by the president—and the pro-government human rights organization Liberty Institute drafted a Broadcasters Code of Conduct in 2006 that proved controversial because of its vague and restrictive guidelines for journalists, according to the news Web site EurasiaNet. The proposal—which sought to regulate reporters’ dress, language, use of anonymous sources, and ability to broadcast live footage of demonstrations—was abandoned amid protests from journalists and media rights groups.

Despite these difficulties, the media continued to successfully publicize and rally public opinion against some government abuses. Such was the case when officials in Tbilisi ordered a series of unlawful apartment evictions and building demolitions, according to local press reports and EurasiaNet.

Local authorities in two Russian-backed separatist regimes in northern Georgia—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—regularly harassed, restricted, and detained local journalists and foreign correspondents. This resulted in limited news coverage of these self-proclaimed republics. In July, a group of independent journalists in Abkhazia sent a letter to local authorities complaining that police surveillance, bureaucratic obstruction, and harassment by prosecutors had reached “Soviet-era proportions,” the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

February 5, 2008 11:20 AM ET |

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