Attacks on the Press 2004: Georgia


Many in the news media had high hopes that this South Caucasus nation would pursue a path of greater press freedom due to the instrumental role that journalists played in the “Rose Revolution,” which swept President Eduard Shevardnadze and his corruption-riddled Cabinet out of office in November 2003. The independent television station Rustavi-2 was particularly important, broadcasting opposition protests and giving airtime to government critics.

A year after the euphoria, many journalists said they were disappointed. Television news coverage usually follows the lead of the new government of Mikhail Saakashvili, the reformist National Movement leader who won the January presidential election with a record 96 percent of the vote. The government, claiming it was cracking down on corruption, shuttered one television station and raided a newspaper. Outspoken voices and diverse views grew rarer as television news and talk shows gave way to entertainment programming.

Only a month after Saakashvili and his coalition government came to power, Rustavi-2 canceled the political talk show “Nochnoi Kurier” (Night Courier), which had been on the air since 1998. Director Erosi Kitsmarishvili said the program needed to be revamped to compete in the new media market, but “Nochnoi Kurier” did not return in any form. Political talk shows on other leading television stations—including state television and the independent channels Imedi and Mze—were also taken off the air, with executives citing the need to restructure programs to fit post-revolution realities.

While no overt government pressure was reported in the programming changes, media analysts and opposition-party members were dismayed at the disappearance of television talk shows and feared that it might have been due to indirect political and financial influences. Rustavi-2’s main creditor, for example, is the state. When the government agreed to postpone Rustavi-2’s 2004 debt payments, it helped keep the station on the air.

Journalists were heartened by Parliament’s approval in June of a new media law that decriminalizes libel and makes it subject to civil action only, the Independent Association of Georgian Journalists (IAGJ) reported. Parliament also loosened provisions on disclosing state secrets: The source who discloses a secret, not the journalist, will be held responsible under the new law. The reforms, scheduled to take effect in 2005, are considered notable improvements.

The Saakashvili government launched an aggressive clampdown on business and political corruption, gaining popular support with high-profile arrests of the former railway head and the ex-ministers of energy and transportation. But in some cases the government used the corruption crackdown to block the work of independent and opposition media outlets, according to IAGJ.

Financial police raided the offices of The Georgian Times, an English-language weekly that had published a series of articles questioning how Tbilisi’s chief prosecutor, Valery Grigalashvili, had acquired certain assets. Staff members and analysts suspect political motives for the police probe. Shortly before the July raid, Grigalashvili warned Publisher Nana Gagua that he was going to collect “operational information” on the newspaper. Police used the same terminology to describe the reason for their raid, telling the staff they had “operational information” about potential financial crimes at the newspaper. The newspaper continued to publish, and no charges were filed against its staff.

The government also obstructed the opposition television station Iberiya, which is owned by the corporate giant Omega, a cigarette trader that had close ties to former Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze. Analysts suggest the station’s troubles appeared to follow those of its political patron, Abashidze, who left office in 2004.

After Prosecutor General Irakli Okruashvili ordered a raid against Omega in February during a tax-evasion probe, authorities suspended Iberiya for four months, according to IAGJ Chairman Zviad Pochkhua. When the station went back on the air, its format was drastically changed from predominantly news to feature films, according to local press reports. The raid and its effect on Iberiya “raise serious concerns” about free expression, Georgian Ombudsman Teimuzad Lombadze said in an interview with the New York–based Web site The independent ombudsman serves as an intermediary between citizens and the government.

Saakashvili’s administration faced escalating tensions in early 2004 in Ajaria, Georgia’s semi-independent enclave on the Black Sea. A defiant Abashidze tardily and reluctantly recognized Saakashvili and then acquiesced to March parliamentary elections only after international pressure. By May, his public support in Ajaria having eroded, Abashidze fled to Moscow.

In the months preceding Abashidze’s departure, the IAGJ documented at least a dozen assaults against journalists covering the turmoil in Ajaria. Vakhtang Komakhidze, a reporter for the “60 Minutes” investigative program on Rustavi-2, was stopped by transit police in the principal city of Batumi in March and forced out of his car by men in black uniforms who beat him and stole his camera, tapes, and various documents. Komakhidze had just spent two weeks in Ajaria reporting on alleged corruption involving Abashidze and his family. According to IAGJ, no significant progress was reported in Komakhidze’s case or in any of the other beatings.

Despite the new government’s expressed commitment to pluralism and democracy, its efforts to centralize power have raised concerns among local and international observers. Parliament passed constitutional amendments in February giving the president direct authority to appoint the most powerful Cabinet ministers and to dissolve Parliament if it repeatedly rejects other Cabinet nominees.