Supreme Court threatens independent TV station for exposing corruption

New York, March 21, 2003— The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is concerned that the Georgian Supreme Court has published a statement requesting that the prosecutor general conduct a criminal inquiry into “60 Minutes,” a biweekly investigative news program on the independent, Tbilisi-based television station Rustavi 2 in retaliation for its reporting on widespread corruption in the judiciary and police.

The statement was printed in the March 10 edition of the state-owned Tbilisi daily Sakartvelos Respublika. (Click here to see full statement.) The prosecutor has not yet responded to the court’s request.

Khatuna Charkviani, a press officer at the Supreme Court, confirmed in a telephone interview with CPJ on Thursday, March 20, that the court issued the statement in Sakartvelos Respublika because the February 16 edition of “60 Minutes” revealed that government officials whom the program had previously caught on hidden camera talking about bribes they had taken and engaging in other corruption had been fired and later rehired.

While Charkviani conceded that no specific press law prohibits journalists from using hidden cameras, she claimed that the practice is unconstitutional and violates three criminal laws.

“Courts in Georgia should be protecting Rustavi-2 journalists from harassment rather than threatening them for their investigative work,” said CPJ’s acting director Joel Simon. “We urge authorities to stop intimidating this station immediately.”

Government harassment ahead of parliamentary elections
The Supreme Court’s threatening statement against Rustavi 2 appears to be a part of a broader campaign of government harassment to discredit the broadcaster ahead of politically sensitive parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

Government-owned media outlets have published and broadcast a series of reports during the last several months attacking “60 Minutes” for its aggressive investigative coverage of government corruption. Sakartvelos Respublika, for example, recently published articles about the show titled “60 Drops of Poison,” “Distorted Truth on TV or a Program Which You Should Disinfect Before Watching,” and “Lies that the ‘60 Minutes’ Markets as the Truth.”

The government’s main television channel, Channel 1, often broadcasts interviews with people criticizing Rustavi-2 and “60 Minutes.”

Rustavi-2 also faces a 10 million lari (US$ 4.6 million) criminal libel lawsuit in the Supreme Court that is unrelated to the court’s request for an investigation into the station, both Rustavi-2 and the court have confirmed.

Valeri Asatiani, the former minister of culture, filed the suit against the station after the April 1, 2000, edition of “60 Minutes” featured a convicted criminal who accused Asatiani of ordering him to murder the minister’s business partner. The Supreme Court is planning to issue a ruling in the case on April 10.

Current or former government officials angered by “60 Minutes”‘ aggressive investigative reporting on government corruption have filed many other suits in lower courts, Gogichaishvili told CPJ.