Attacks on the Press 2000: Georgia

ALONG WITH ORGANIZED CRIME, SEPARATIST MOVEMENTS, and the excesses of regional strongmen, spillover from Russia’s war in neighboring Chechnya added to Georgia’s woes in 2000, making the lives of local journalists even more difficult.

On October 16, the body of an Italian journalist who had covered the Chechen conflict was found on a mountain pass some 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The reporter, Antonio Russo of Radio Radicale, had befriended Chechen separatist fighters in the course of his work, and colleagues said he claimed to have videotaped evidence of Russian atrocities in Chechnya. Local journalists and investigators, including Georgian prosecutor general Dzhamlet Babilashvili, have suggested Russo may have been killed to prevent this material from coming to light.

Russia accused Georgia of indirectly aiding Chechen separatist rebels by allowing them to cross the Georgian border with impunity. The Georgian press, in stark contrast to the Russian media (See Russia section), heaped criticism on Moscow for its conduct of the war. Nevertheless, some Georgian journalists suffered at Chechen rebel hands. On December 18 in the Georgian village of Dumasturi, a dozen armed guerillas from Chechnya seized a reporter and two cameramen from Tbilisi’s independent Rustavi 2 television station. The guerillas accused the crew of working for Russian intelligence and released them only after the intervention of local ethnic Chechen leaders.

Attacks on journalists came from other quarters as well. On August 16 and 17, two radio reporters were beaten while covering the trial of two members of a Georgian ultranationalist group known for its virulent intolerance of all faiths other than Georgian Orthodox Christianity.

Vasil Silagadze of the daily Eko Digest was beaten and threatened by two police officers after he published an article alleging corruption among high-ranking law enforcement officials, including the interior minister. One of the attackers slashed the fingers on Silagadze’s right hand, saying that the journalist “wouldn’t be able to write for a while.” After the Prosecutor’s Office launched an official investigation into the attack, Silagadze reportedly received an anonymous death threat.

On March 1, CPJ called for an investigation into the apparently illegal takeover of Telekanal 25, the only independent TV station in the autonomous region of Adjaria which is not controlled by the central government. Three of four owners of the station were allegedly forced to sign over 75 percent of the equity shares to a buyer with close links to the former mayor of the Adjarian capital, Batumi. The former mayor had long been at odds with the station over its critical coverage of his administration.

In May, prominent investigative journalist Akaki Gogichaishvili claimed to have been threatened repeatedly by local officials and businessmen, including members of President Eduard Shevardnadze’s family. Gogichaishvili is the anchor of “60 Minutes,” a weekly current affairs program on Rustavi 2 television that was modelled after the U.S. news magazine show and has often investigated official corruption and the criminal underworld. CPJ wrote to President Shevardnadze to request that reports of official attempts to intimidate Gogichaishvili be investigated, and received a formal response from his press secretary, Kaha Imnadze. A CPJ representative who visited Tbilisi in August was told that Imnadze was unavailable for a meeting.

With few exceptions, newspapers in Georgia are not commercially viable-circulations are small, and advertising revenues low. As a result publications often become vehicles for wealthy patrons who wish to push a particular political agenda.

Journalists welcomed the Freedom of Information Act adopted in late 1999, which has apparently promoted transparency in the work of officials and government departments.

Telekanal 25

A local politician forced the owners of Telekanal 25, the only independent television station in the autonomous Georgian region of Adjaria, to sell their rights to the station.

Late on the evening of February 19, Aslan Smirba, a former mayor of the Adjarian capital, Batumi, and a member of the Georgian parliament, forced three of Telekanal 25’s four owners to sign over 75 percent of the station’s shares to Mikhail Gagoshidze, whom CPJ’s sources described as a third party chosen by Smirba to be the station’s nominal owner.

Earlier in the day, Smirba, a close associate of Adjarian president Aslan Abashidze, had been involved in a physical altercation with Telekanal 25’s business director, Atandil Gvasaliya, in front of the building that houses the station.

According to CPJ sources, Smirba told the station owners that he would “put a bullet through someone’s head” if they refused to transfer their shares to Gagoshidze. In an attempt to legitimize the transaction, Smirba then forced the owners to accept a payment of US$50,000.

Smirba, who had often criticized Telekanal 25’s coverage, had made several previous attempts to coerce the station’s owners into selling their shares. He also claimed that Telekanal 25 owed him approximately US$56,000 for a 1996 payment he had made to Adjarian official Leonid Zhgenti in return for granting the station permission to broadcast.

Smirba provided no evidence to back up this allegation, despite having promised that he would take no further steps to acquire Telekanal 25 until the legitimacy of his claim could be proved. All of the station’s journalists and most of its technicians resigned in protest after the sale.

On March 1, CPJ wrote to Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze, urging him to order an investigation into the apparently illegal takeover.

MAY 19
Akaki Gogichaishvili, Rustavi 2 TV

Gogichaishvili, who anchors the popular weekly program “60 Minutes” on the independent television channel Rustavi 2, held a press conference in Tbilisi, in which he claimed he had repeatedly been threatened by local officials and businessmen, including members of President Eduard Shevardnadze’s family.

The threats were prompted by the show’s hard-hitting investigations of state corruption and the criminal underworld. Gogichaishvili claimed that he had been warned to leave the country.

Meanwhile, local press freedom groups reported that the Interior Ministry, the Office of the Prosecutor General, and other government agencies had set up a joint committee to investigate the programming and financial affairs of “60 Minutes.”

The harassment peaked after the March 26 and April 2 broadcast of two “60 Minutes” episodes alleging corruption in the Georgian Writers’ Union. Gogichaishvili claims that Prosecutor General Djamlet Babilashvili and his deputy, Anzor Baluashvili, took issue with the allegations, threatening to ban “60 Minutes” and to initiate legal proceedings against him. Later, according to Gogichaishvili, he also received word that his life had been threatened.

On May 22, President Shevardnadze ordered the Interior and Security Ministries to take all necessary measures to protect Gogichaishvili and his family.

On November 10, the Writers’ Union filed a defamation case against Rustavi 2 and Gogichaishvili for programs aired on March 26 and April 2. The Writers’ Union suit is against Rustavi 2 and also against Gogichaishvili personally, and it claims US$2.5 million in moral compensation for defamation. Hearings were expected to begin in February 2001.

Another defamation suit was filed by the Amalgamation of Independent Trade Unions of Georgia on July 25, 2000 for a program that aired March 5, 2000. Irakli Tugushi, leader of the Amalgamation of Independent Trade Unions of Georgia, filed a personal suit and one from the organization he heads (they are considered one case). Tugushi is demanding US$250,000 for himself and US$250,000 for the organization in compensation for defamation. The suit is against Gogichaishvili personally, Rustavi 2, and against a magazine titled 60 Minutes, which published the content of the television program. First hearings were held on November 22, and in early December, Tugushi’s lawyer was reported as saying that the suit was to be withdrawn. However, the lawyer has since changed that view and proceedings are to be renewed in February 2001.

Gogichaishvili claims the suits are politically motivated. CPJ sent a protest letter on June 14, 2000.

Vasil Silagadze, Eko Digest

Silagadze, a reporter with the independent Tbilisi daily Eko Digest, was beaten and threatened by two plainclothes officers who apparently recognized him as the author of a June 18 article entitled “Police Officers Live Very Well Without Salaries.”

The men, who displayed police badges, stopped the journalist’s car at night in Tbilisi. They then forced him into their own car and drove him to a local park, where they demanded that he disclose his sources for the article. When Silagadze refused to comply, they beat him severely, according to CPJ sources and international press reports.

One of the attackers slashed the fingers on Silagadze’s right hand, saying that he “wouldn’t be able to write for a while.” The officers also threatened Silagadze with further harm if he persisted in covering the issue of police corruption.

In the piece that apparently prompted the attack, Silagadze condemned high-ranking police officials, including the interior minister, for their “luxurious lifestyle” in a country where lower-ranking police officers are poorly paid and must wait for months to receive their salaries.

Two days after the attack, Georgian ombudsman Nana Devdariani sent an official letter to Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze, requesting an investigation. On July 28, the Prosecutor’s Office began an investigation. That same day, Silagadze received a phone call from a man he believed to be one of his attackers, who demanded that Silagadze help stop the police investigation. “We should have killed you then like a pig,” said the caller.

On August 8, CPJ wrote to President Eduard Shevardnadze, calling on him to ensure that the case would be pursued. At a press conference on August 11, Silagadze announced that he had been fired from the newspaper. He claimed police officials had pressured the editor of Eko Digest to dismiss him.

“60 Minutes”

During an interview with Georgian “60 Minutes” correspondent Nino Khajomia at his suburban villa, the director of the Georgian Forestry Department, Shota Meparidze, and his assistants violently seized a video camera from the program’s crew. Apparently, Meparidze wanted to prevent the journalists from releasing the interview.

“60 Minutes” is a Georgian investigative news program broadcast on the independent channel Rustavi 2. Modeled on the U.S. program of the same name, the show is known for tough reporting on official malfeasance and corruption in various sectors of the economy.

Several journalists from other television companies and newspapers happened to be in the area covering a political rally. When they approached Meparidze’s gates in response to Khajomia’s request that they cover the incident, Meparidze unleashed his dogs and started firing his revolver. Later, local police tried to talk to the official, without success.

The police were reluctant to order Meparidze, who is an old high-school friend of President Eduard Shevardnadze, to return the show’s only camera. As a result, “60 Minutes” had to use a borrowed camera for more than two weeks, until the police retrieved the seized camera from the official. A tape that contained a portion of the interview with Meparidze was missing, however, and was never recovered.

Antonio Russo, Radio Radicale

Russo, 40, was found dead by the side of a mountain road near the village of Ujarma, some 40 kilometers east of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, according to local and international press reports. He worked for the Italian broadcasting station Radio Radicale, based in Rome, and was affiliated with the Transnational Radical Party.

Initially, investigators found no injuries or other traces of violence on Russo’s body. But an autopsy revealed that Russo had died from multiple broken ribs and lung injuries, inflicted by a blow to the chest from a dull object. Georgian forensic experts determined that the journalist had died at approximately 2 a.m. on the morning of October 16.

When police found Russo’s body some 14 hours later, they also recovered a rope that had evidently been taken from the journalist’s apartment and then used to tie him up. According to press reports, the apartment had been searched and looted; Russo’s laptop computer, mobile telephone, video camera, and three videotapes were missing.

Georgian authorities did not rule out the theory that Russo had been killed because of his journalism. At least one official suggested that an unnamed “foreign intelligence service” played a role in his death, implying that Russian authorities were unhappy about Russo’s frequent contacts with Chechen rebel forces. According to some reports, he planned to return to Italy at the end of October with video footage that allegedly showed Russian forces in Chechnya using weapons that violated international humanitarian conventions.

However, these accusations may simply reflect animosity between Russia and Georgia over the latter’s alleged support for the Chechens. Some officials also speculated that Russo might have died as the result of a robbery or a random hit-and-run incident.

As a foreign correspondent for Radio Radicale, Russo had previously covered conflicts in Algeria, Burundi, Rwanda, Colombia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Although Russian authorities denied him an entry visa to Chechnya, Russo entered the breakaway republic illegally on several occasions to interview Chechen military commanders and former Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov.

Nana Intskirveli, Rustavi 2
Zviad Igriashvili, Rustavi 2
Ramza Grdzelishvili, Rustavi 2

A dozen armed guerrillas from neighboring Chechnya kidnapped a television news crew from the Tbilisi station Rustavi 2. The kidnappers accosted reporter Intskirveli, cameraman Igriashvili, and driver Grdzelishvili near the Georgian village of Dumasturi (some 40 kilometers northeast of Tbilisi), forced them into three cars, and drove off in an unknown direction, according to numerous local media reports.

The kidnappers accused the Rustavi 2 journalists of gathering information for the Russian intelligence service and seized a tape from their video camera, although Intskirveli managed to hide and save another tape containing footage of the abduction. The journalists were held captive for about a day and then released with the help of local ethnic Chechen leaders.

The crew was in the area on a two-week assignment, investigating the security of the Chechen-Georgian border. The Georgian government claimed that the border was under tight control and that no Chechen militants were able to cross into Georgia. The Rustavi 2 team’s footage suggested the opposite.