Polish television crew freed in South Ossetia

New York, September 9, 2008The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes today’s release of Telewizja Polska (TVP) crew members who were detained outside the Georgian village of Karaleti by South Ossetian militia members, and taken into custody in the regional capital, Tskhinvali on Monday.

Reporter Dariusz Bohatkiewicz told CPJ that authorities in Tskhinvali transferred him and his colleagues—cameraman Marcin Wesołowski and driver Levan Guliashvili—to Russian peacekeepers who turned them over to Georgian authorities and Polish diplomats. TVP crew’s equipment and car were returned undamaged.

“We are relieved that the Telewizja Polska crew were released, but we remain concerned about the harassment they have endured—all because they were doing their job,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “We call on South Ossetian and Russian authorities to investigate this troublesome incident. Independent reporting in the aftermath of this brief but brutal conflict is one important factor in drawing attention to the toll that this conflict has taken on civilians.”

Bohatkiewicz told CPJ that his crew had traveled to the region to interview local residents—mostly elderly people unable to leave the conflict zone. When the crew finished its interviews in Georgia proper, it headed toward South Ossetia. However, the crew was stopped close to the village of Karaleti by armed South Ossetian militiamen, Bohatkiewicz said.

Authorities accused them of being American and Polish spies, he told CPJ, but TVP’s car was marked with both “Press” and “TVP” labels. Levan Guliashvili, the crew’s driver, said a man held a gun to his head, and later an officer punched him in the face.

Bohatkiewicz told CPJ that the militiamen stripped the crew of all equipment and mobile phones; took their car; and drove them to an unknown site that appeared to be South Ossetian military headquarters. South Ossetian officers questioned them for about three hours, he said. Officers then transferred the crew to the South Ossetian regional capital, Tskhinvali, where they were held until this morning, when they were handed over to Russian peacekeepers who, in turn, handed them over to Polish diplomats and Georgian authorities in Karaleti, Bohatkiewicz told CPJ.

In an interview for the news agency Interfax on Monday, Irina Gagloyeva, a spokeswoman for the South Ossetian government said the TVP journalists were detained in a “drunken state” and could not give an “articulate explanation of their purposes.” Gagloyeva clarified the crew would be released and sent back to Georgia “as soon as they sober up.” Bohatkiewicz called the accusation laughable. “I was supposed to go on the air in two hours, I do not drink at work—this is nonsense,” Bohatkiewicz told CPJ.