Georgia shuts two TV stations, blocks others from news-gathering

New York, November 8, 2007—The Georgian government should immediately allow two private television stations to resume broadcasting, and it must lift a ban on news-gathering imposed on all other private broadcasters, the Committee to Protect Journalist said today.

The government shut two popular Tbilisi-based television channels shortly before declaring a state of emergency Wednesday night. Imedi, considered the main Georgian opposition television and radio broadcaster, was raided by special forces and taken off the air at 9 p.m. Kavkaziya, a small independent channel, was also shut down.

Later Wednesday night, Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli told a national television audience that a 15-day state of emergency had been imposed, during which no private broadcaster would be allowed to gather and disseminate news, according to CPJ sources and news reports. All news, he said, would be broadcast by state-funded Georgian Public Television

“We are deeply concerned about Georgia’s ban on independent news at this crucial moment for the country’s fledgling democracy,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on President Mikhail Saakashvili to restore the opposition station Imedi and the independent channel Kavkaziya immediately and allow the public full access to news and opinion at this crucial time.”

The state of emergency follows six days of opposition demonstrations organized by a 10-party opposition coalition, which demanded early parliamentary elections and election law changes. Protesters also called for the president’s resignation, accusing him of turning Georgia away from democracy. As many as 50,000 protesters gathered on November 2 and blocked the main Rustaveli Prospect—the key street in the capital, which four years before had been the scene of the popular Rose Revolution that toppled the corrupt regime of Eduard Shevardnadze. Several thousand protesters remained on the streets Wednesday morning.

That morning, police dispersed protesters in front of parliament, using tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, and water cannons, according to local and international reports. Georgian health officials said more than 500 people sought medical treatment for injuries, The Associated Press reported. Police detained 32 protesters, AP said. According to human rights groups and eyewitnesses, police forbade television stations from filming the protests’ dispersal and beat several journalists with batons.

Local press reports said that reporters Sofo Mdinaradze, Giga Makarashvili, and Lika Khurdidze, along with cameraman Gogita Kharebava—all with the television channel Obshchestvenny Veshchatel—were beaten by police. Police confiscated video cameras and banned television channels from filming the crackdown, reports said. Some journalists were beaten as they tried to film the dispersal.

“The forceful actions of police against journalists who tried to cover these significant events are unjustified,” said Simon. “We call on President Saakashvili and his government to investigate the reported police abuse and hold those responsible to account.”

Speaking to The New York Times, Giga Bokeria, a member of parliament and Saakashvili ally, said Imedi’s owner had provoked the government to shut the station. Imedi is owned by Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili, a close associate of the Russian exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky. “Mr. Patarkatsishvili made a statement on his television station that he will use all of his resources to overthrow the illegal state of Georgia,” Bokeria told the Times. “We strongly believe all of this was planned long ago.” Local journalists told CPJ that Imedi’s coverage was harshly critical and unbalanced, but it did not call for violent overthrow.

In a televised address on Wednesday, Saakashvili blamed Russian intelligence services for plotting to overthrow the government. The Georgian Interior Ministry made video tapes publicly available, which reportedly showed Georgian opposition leaders meeting with people the ministry claimed were Russian intelligence service agents, according to the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

Georgia announced the expulsion of three Russian diplomats as protests unfolded. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the Georgian actions a “farce,” according to international press reports.