Three journalists were killed and at least 10 were wounded during a brief but bloody conflict in the disputed region of South Ossetia that pitted Georgian troops against local and Russian forces. South Ossetian separatists strengthened their position after the conflict–gaining full recognition from Moscow and the active support of Russian troops–although Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili reaped at least a short-term spike in popularity.
Fighting erupted August 7 after Saakashvili ordered airstrikes on the region’s capital, Tskhinvali. The move followed months of tension between ethnic Ossetians and Georgians, fanned by Moscow’s encouragement of the separatists and Tbilisi’s efforts to fully assimilate the region. Three days after fighting broke out, Georgian journalists Aleksandr Klimchuk and Grigol Chikhladze were killed by South Ossetian militias as they tried to enter the conflict zone near Tskhinvali. Klimchuk was covering the conflict for the Russian news agency Itar-Tass; Chikhladze was on assignment for Russian Newsweek. U.S. reporter Winston Featherly suffered leg wounds and Georgian journalist Temuri Kiguradze sustained arm injuries in the attack, apparently prompted when one of the journalists addressed South Ossetian troops in Georgian.
Stan Storimans, a cameraman with the Netherlands-based television channel RTL Nieuws, was killed August 12 during shelling of the central Georgian city of Gori. A Dutch government investigation found that a Russian cluster bomb had been the source of the attack, a conclusion disputed by Moscow. Also injured in the attack were RTL Nieuws reporter Jeroen Akkermans, whose leg was hit by shrapnel, and reporter Zadok Yehezkeli of the Tel Aviv-based daily Yedioth Ahronoth, who sustained injuries to the abdomen, leg, chest, and shoulder. Akkermans carried an unconscious Yehezkeli to safety after the blast, according to CPJ interviews and news reports, an effort that was captured in a dramatic photo distributed by Reuters.
At least six other journalists were injured, in attacks of undetermined origin, during the five-day conflict. On August 9, a rocket attack in Tskhinvali injured Aleksandr Sladkov, Leonid Losev, and Igor Ukleyin of the Russian state television channel Vesti, and Aleksandr Kots from the Moscow-based daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. On August 10, Peter Gassiyev, a producer with the Russian television channel NTV, was injured in an attack outside Tskhinvali. Turkish journalist Recep Öztürk of KanalTürk television was wounded the same day when his car came under fire near Tskhinvali.
Georgian, Russian, and South Ossetian forces all obstructed the press. Georgia blocked domestic access to Russian television broadcasts and news Web sites throughout the conflict, charging biased coverage. Among those banned were the independent news sites Gazeta and Lenta, as well as the Russian-language satellite broadcaster RTVi. According to the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy, RTVi’s broadcasts in Georgia were cut off after it aired an interview in which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for Saakashvili to step down. The channel’s broadcasts were restored in late August.
Russian military forces, controlling what they called a buffer zone between South Ossetia and Georgia proper, blocked journalists from reporting on the war’s aftermath well into September. Several Georgian and international journalists told CPJ that troops had demanded press accreditation from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When journalists could not produce such documentation, they were sent away.
On September 8, Russian and South Ossetian authorities detained a three-member crew with the Polish television channel Telewizja Polska near the village of Karaleti in the buffer zone. Authorities confiscated the journalists’ equipment and cell phones and held them incommunicado overnight. Reporter Dariusz Bohatkiewicz told CPJ that South Ossetian militias accused the three of being American and Polish spies.
Saakashvili, 41, U.S.-educated and multilingual, spent considerable time and energy giving interviews to international news media during and after the conflict, eliciting sympathy in the West and gaining a public relations edge over Russia. As international debate focused on Russia’s actions, opposition voices at home were muted. National television channels were uncritical of Saakashvili’s aggressive moves in August to unite the disputed region of South Ossetia with Georgia proper, according to CPJ’s analysis. Stations took a one-sided approach to covering the five-day August conflict and its immediate aftermath, voicing approval for government actions and steering clear of criticism.
In June, a CPJ fact-finding mission in Tbilisi found that the Saakashvili administration has sought to control reporting on television, the country’s most popular and influential source of news. In particular, CPJ found the government intent on securing government-friendly ownership and management at national television stations. In more than a dozen in-depth interviews with Georgian reporters, managers, and media analysts, CPJ found broadcast reporters reluctant to pursue sensitive stories that challenge government policies because of a perceived lack of support from upper management.
The national stations Rustavi 2, Mze (which became an all-entertainment channel in mid-year), and Imedi TV (which carried no news at all until September) provided virtually no critical coverage of Saakashvili’s administration, CPJ’s analysis found. In September, Rustavi 2 canceled the political talk show “Primetime,” hosted by Inga Grigolia, citing financial reasons. Grigolia expressed skepticism in an interview with the independent daily Rezonansi, noting that the program had enjoyed high ratings and generated high advertising revenue.
Rustavi 2 was once the nation’s most aggressive news outlet, known for rallying Georgians during the Rose Revolution, but by all accounts its reporting has lost its critical edge. In 2006, management hired government loyalists in a staff shakeup, merged the station with Mze, and sold the entity to a little-known holding company. By late 2008, ownership was split among three parties: GeoMedia Group, which was registered in the Marshall Islands and did not disclose its principals; the Georgian Industrial Group, controlled by David Bezhuashvili, a Saakashvili ally and member of parliament; and Rustavi 2’s top executive, Irakli Chikovani.
“That Georgia is on the road to democracy and has a free press is the main myth created by Georgia that the West has believed in,” Sozar Subari, Georgia’s human rights ombudsman, told The New York Times in October. “We have some of the best freedom-of-expression laws in the world, but in practice the government is so afraid of criticism that it has felt compelled to raid media offices, to intimidate journalists, and to bash their equipment.”
The case of Imedi TV illustrated this worrisome trend. Founded by billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, Imedi had angered Saakashvili by providing a forum for Georgia’s marginalized opposition and, particularly, for airing calls for antigovernment demonstrations in late 2007. The administration forced the station off the air in November 2007 when protests prompted Saakashvili to declare a state of emergency. Government troops used particularly heavy-handed tactics against Imedi, destroying equipment and effectively crippling the station. The state of emergency ended after nine days, but Imedi did not return to the air for five months, during which it lost most of its 100-person news staff. When Imedi resumed broadcasting in May, it provided only entertainment programming and struggled to regain its place in Georgia’s media market. By the time Imedi resumed news broadcasts in September, new ownership had softened the channel’s critical stance.
The evolution of Imedi TV started in February when Patarkatsishvili died of a heart attack. The Georgian press initially reported that the station would be passed on to Patarkatsishvili’s widow, Inna Gudavadze. By March, a new heir emerged: Georgian-American businessman Joseph Kay, a distant cousin. Kay claimed that Patarkatsishvili had given him the right to manage all assets in the estate, including Imedi. Gudavadze contested Kay’s claim, saying in several media interviews that her husband had been pressured by the government to sell Imedi before his death and that Kay was acting at the state’s behest. Georgian authorities dismissed the claim. A bitter court battle took place on both sides of the Atlantic, ending with a New York judge ruling against Kay and a Tbilisi court upholding his management rights.
The Georgian court held sway, and Kay took the helm of Imedi. In April, he met with its staff–the broadcaster includes a television station and a radio station, both of which ranked as Georgia’s most popular before his arrival–and assured them that he would preserve Imedi’s independence, Imedi TV’s general director, Bidzina Baratashvili, told CPJ in June. But a month later, Kay fired Radio Imedi’s news director, Nonna Kandiashvili. In an interview with CPJ, Kandiashvili said Kay had told her the station’s coverage was too negative under her leadership. A spokesman for Kay said the owner had made the decision based on a desire for objectivity.
As Imedi dominated the headlines, a small station struggled to gain a license for broadcasting news. In April, the Georgian National Communications Commission turned back an application from Maestro–a local channel covering the cities of Tbilisi, Rustavi, and Gori–to produce and air political programming. Maestro won a court appeal but had not begun news programming in late year.
One entity that could change the landscape, if it undergoes genuine reform, is the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB), a former state-run entity that included two television and two radio stations. As an initiative of the Saakashvili administration, the broadcaster was undergoing major changes throughout the year, modeling itself after the British Broadcasting Corporation, GPB General Director Levan Kubaneishvili told CPJ in June. The outlet is governed by a parliament-appointed board of trustees, and 70 percent of its financing comes from the state budget.
|Other Attacks and Developments in the Region|