Reporter Nino Kekelia (pictured) and Irakli Kvaratskhelia were attacked in Udabno, Georgia, on May 4, 2021. (Photo: Mtavari Arkhi)

Reporting crew for Mtavari Arkhi broadcaster attacked, harassed in Georgia

New York, May 6, 2021 – Georgian authorities should swiftly and thoroughly investigate the recent attack on journalists Nino Kekelia and Irakli Kvaratskhelia, find the perpetrators, and ensure that the press can work freely and safely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On May 4, a group of unidentified men attacked and harassed Kekelia, a reporter with the pro-opposition Georgian broadcaster Mtavari Arkhi, and Kvaratskhelia, a camera operator with the broadcaster, while they were reporting in the eastern village of Udabno, according to news reports as well as Kekelia and Mtavari Arkhi director and lawyer Tamta Muradashvili, both of whom spoke with CPJ in a phone interview. Nino Kekelia broadcasts using the name Ninutsa Kekelia, she told CPJ.

“Georgian authorities should take the attack on journalists Nino Kekelia and Irakli Kvaratskhelia seriously, thoroughly investigate the incident, and ensure that the perpetrators are found and held responsible,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “It is essential that journalists in Georgia can report on important political developments freely and without fear, and it is the job of the authorities to ensure their safety.”

Kekelia and Kvaratskhelia were in Udabno, a disputed border area between Georgia and Azerbaijan, to record an interview with Iveri Melashvili, a cartographer, according to Kekelia and those reports.

Shortly after they started filming the interview near the Davit Gareja Monastery, two men dressed as priests and two men in civilian clothes approached the reporting team, called Melashvili a traitor, and demanded they leave the area, Kekelia said. Melashvili is under investigation by Georgian authorities for allegedly withholding materials from a border agreement between Georgia and Azerbaijan that forced Georgia to forfeit some land, according to news reports.

The men then demanded that Kekelia leave, and one shoved her in the stomach; when Kvaratskhelia told them not to touch the reporter, the men pushed him, forcing him to the ground, according to Kekelia and a video of the attack shared by Mtavari on social media.

Kekelia told CPJ that Kvaratskhelia dropped his camera in the scuffle, and said it appeared to be damaged in the fall. The men also pushed Kekelia in her shoulders and kicked her in her ankles, the journalist said.

Kekelia said that two border police cars were nearby during the fight, but when the journalists approached to ask for help, the officers rolled up their windows and ignored them.

The journalists called the police, and officers from the nearby town of Sagarejo arrived approximately 30 minutes later, by which point the scuffle was over and the attackers had left the scene, Kekelia said.

Police told the crew to drive to Sagarejo to file a complaint about the attack, Kekelia told CPJ. She said that, as the news crew started to drive out of Udabno, a crowd of approximately 50 people blocked the road, surrounded their car, and started yelling insults and demanding they leave. By the time the police car, which was driving behind them, caught up about 10 minutes later, the crowd was gone, she said.

Kekelia told CPJ that neither she nor Kvaratskhelia needed to be hospitalized following the attack, and added that she was examined at a the local Gurjaani forensic center, but did not have any serious injuries. The team’s camera is currently with the police, and Kekelia said they do not know the extent of the damage to the device.

The journalists filed a complaint with police, who opened an investigation into the incident; Muradashvili told CPJ that the police are considering filing criminal “violence” charges, but have declined to pursue charges of interfering with journalists’ work.

Muradashvili told CPJ that she believed the attack on the journalists contributed to “a violent environment [that] causes a ‘chilling effect’ and that is, of course, very detrimental for journalism and free speech.”

Separately, in September 2020, unidentified assailants attacked a Mtavari Arkhi film crew in the southern city of Marneuli, which police observed but declined to intervene, as CPJ documented at the time. Muradashvili told CPJ that authorities’ investigation into that incident is still ongoing.

CPJ emailed Georgia’s Ministry of Interior Affairs and the prosecutor general’s office for comment, but did not receive any responses.