Attacks on the Press 2003: Georgia

After 11 years in office, President Eduard Shevardnadze and his corruption-ridden government grew increasingly unpopular in 2003. Approval ratings plummeted, culminating in November elections marred by widespread fraud that discredited pro-Shevardnadze forces’ claim of victory. Facing escalating protests against the poll, the president resigned on November 23. New presidential and parliamentary elections were scheduled for early 2004.

Throughout 2003, Georgia was consumed by election fever. Although a number of publications present a broad spectrum of views, with little money available to buy newspapers and magazines, most people rely on television as their main source of news. Independent television station Rustavi-2 broadcast the voices and protests of the opposition, thereby strengthening the anti-Shevardnadze movement and helping to bring about the president’s resignation.

However, whether the opposition will be an improvement over Shevardnadze remains unclear. The troika of political leaders who temporarily controlled the government until new presidential elections in January 2004 quickly appointed some of their cronies to high-level positions, despite being well-known as reformers. But after criticism from the Liberty Institute, a Tbilisi-based human rights organization that backed the opposition in its showdown with Shevardnadze, the questionable appointees were removed.

Colleagues of slain television journalist Georgy Sanaya, who was murdered in July 2001, were outraged by the verdict in the trial of his accused killer in July 2003. Disregarding arguments that Sanaya’s murder was connected to his work, the court convicted the man who gunned him down without searching for those who masterminded the killing. The popular television host was known for both his investigative work and his political talk show on the independent Rustavi-2 television station. His supporters say he was killed because of his efforts to expose government corruption, and to discourage his colleagues at the station from pursuing the same stories.

On the eve of the flawed November elections, the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) attempted to revoke Rustavi-2’s license but did not follow through. Some sources speculate that because the station is so popular, the CEC feared sparking additional antigovernment riots with a closure. For years, Rustavi-2 has endured threats, harassment, tax audits, and attacks. In 2003, angry politicians implicated in scandals by the network’s famous “60 Minutes” program filed libel suits against the station. Culture Minister Valeri Asatiani filed a US$4.6 million criminal libel suit with the Supreme Court against Rustavi-2 after the station aired a report in April 2000 that linked him to a murder. The Supreme Court also asked the general prosecutor to conduct a criminal inquiry into Rustavi-2’s activities because of its aggressive coverage of corruption in the judiciary and police. The court’s request appeared to be part of a broader government campaign to harass Rustavi-2 in advance of the November elections.

In a show of increasing independence on the part of the media, after the poll, the state-run Channel 1 TV station, normally a mouthpiece for the Shevardnadze government, began broadcasting the anti-Shevardnadze protests. In response, Shevardnadze criticized the station, and the head of the station resigned. Once the interim government took power in November, the station continued broadcasting. On December 3, a bomb went off at Channel 1 headquarters. The attack was seen as an attempt to destabilize the country ahead of the January 2004 elections.

Other independent media outlets in the provinces, however, were more vulnerable to the whims of local officials eager to silence critics during an election year. In Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city, a series of disturbing incidents temporarily silenced the region’s only independent radio and television stations. In May, employees at Kutaisi Television suffered from severe gas poisoning. The station, known for criticizing the regional governor, was closed for six days while police investigated the source of the gas leak. Many were convinced that government authorities were to blame, but police concluded it was accidental.

Radical religious groups associated with a fringe element of the Georgian Orthodox Church attacked independent media outlets in 2003. Some of the attacks were sparked by anger over the airing of programs for religious minorities. Dzveli Kalaki, Kutaisi’s only independent radio station, was silenced in April after an angry crowd stormed its building and destroyed the station’s antenna. In the months prior to the attack, station staff had endured verbal and physical harassment from local Georgian Orthodox extremists who oppose the station’s weekly 20-minute program about the country’s Catholic minority. While the church distanced itself from such attacks, it made no effort to stop them.