Two years after the Rose Revolution toppled the corrupt regime of Eduard Shevardnadze and ushered in the promise of media reform, independent journalists feared the emergence of a new, subtler wave of repression. Several media owners have close ties to political leaders, journalists said, enabling authorities to exert behind-the-scenes pressure on front-line reporters and editors. President Mikhail Saakashvili and his cabinet directly targeted one critical news outlet, claiming they were fighting media corruption.
Government officials sought to dismiss fears of repression. "Look at our television channels," Deputy Parliament Speaker Mikhail Machavariani said on the independent television channel 202. "Every significant event is discussed in detail, opposition [views] are omnipresent, nobody hides anything. How can there be talk of pressure on the media in this situation?"
Indeed, channel 202's late-night political talk show, "Debatebi" (Debates), became a prominent source for opposition views by midyear. But the station then suffered two serious blows in as many months.
Two executives were arrested in August on extortion charges, and a prominent station journalist was beaten the following month. Journalists feared the incidents came in retaliation for channel 202's critical coverage.
Shalva Ramishvili, channel 202's co-owner and anchor, and David Kokheridze, the station's general director, were accused of extorting 54,000 laris (US$30,000) from Member of Parliament Koba Bekauri in exchange for scrapping an investigative report on his business dealings. Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili stood by the arrests, saying that they were the start of a crackdown on corruption in the Georgian media. Critics called it a selective and politically convenient action against an independent news outlet, the news Web site Eurasianet reported.
Irakli Kakabadze, who replaced Ramishvili as anchor of channel 202's political show, was beaten on his way home from work on a Tbilisi street on September 7. Saakashvili and other politicians condemned the attack and pledged a thorough investigation, but the pronouncements were met with skepticism by friends and colleagues, the U.S.-government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said.
Channel 202 had emerged as a leading venue after political and news programming on other Georgian channels went off the air. The independent station Mze canceled the talk show "Archevanis Zgvarze" (On the Verge of Choice), shortly after commentators criticized authorities for forcibly dispersing a July 1 protest in Tbilisi. Host Irakli Imnaishvili told Eurasianet: "It is a fact that directly after [the street protests] when members of the ruling party announced on air that they were not satisfied with the coverage, I was told that my program would be taken off the air after July 8." The management of Mze, which is owned by two members of the parliament, said the show was not popular enough to retain.
Mze journalists angered authorities earlier in the year by airing speculation that the February 3 death of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania might not have been accidental. Zhvania was found dead in a Tbilisi apartment from what the government said was carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a malfunctioning heater.
The once-independent Rustavi-2 station, whose reporting fueled the mass protests that brought new leadership to power during the Rose Revolution, became owned largely by Kibar Khalvashi, a powerful businessman with close ties to Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, according to the London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting.
The channel, which once devoted much of its airtime to news, broadcast mainly movies and soap operas. Several of its investigative journalists left the channel to form their own freelance production crew, which produced investigative programs for channel 202.
Most Georgians rely on broadcast media for news. But the Independent Association of Georgian Journalists (IAGJ), a monitoring media group, said watered-down broadcast news has led some people to seek out the print media, which still work in relative independence. The IAGJ said the circulation of the daily Rezonansi grew 25 percent in the past two years, while the Georgian-language version of The Georgian Times saw its readership climb nearly 60 percent during the same period. Still, print circulation is limited. The six leading Tbilisi-based weeklies have a total combined circulation of 200,000, according to a report by the U.S.-based media training organization IREX.
Assaults against Georgian journalists appeared to decline in 2005, said Zviad Pochkhua, president of IAGJ, but he attributed the trend to greater self-censorship among journalists.
Georgian authorities have not reported progress in their investigation into the attack on Vakhtang Komakhidze, a former Rustavi-2 reporter. Komakhidze was stopped by transit police in the Ajarian city of Batumi in March 2004 and forced out of his car by uniformed men who beat him and stole his camera, tapes, and documents. He had just spent two weeks in Ajaria, an enclave on the Black Sea, investigating alleged corruption involving then-leader Aslan Abashidze.
Saakashvili and his Cabinet continued their efforts to bring the Russia-influenced breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia under Tbilisi's control. Rebel leaders in these northern breakaway regions maintained tight control over all local media and often prevented Georgian journalists from traveling within their territory to report on local developments.