Camera operator Zviad Ablotia (left) and correspondent Ema Gogokhia (right), both with Mtavari Arkhi, were attacked by a group of men who broke Ablotia's camera while the journalists were filming outside a local Conservative Movement office on March 17, 2022. (Mtavari Arkhi)

Formula TV, Mtavari Arkhi crews attacked in Georgia

New York, March 25, 2022 – Georgian authorities should thoroughly investigate two recent attacks on camera crews working for independent and pro-opposition television stations Mtavari Arkhi and Formula TV and ensure that all perpetrators are held to account, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

At around 7 p.m. on March 17, Formula TV reporter Nano Chakvetadze, camera operator Archil Nikolaishvili, and camera assistant Giga Tskhovrebashvili were attempting to conduct an interview at a bar in the capital Tbilisi, when they were assaulted by a customer after he heard the journalists worked for the outlet, according to news reports and Chakvetadze, who spoke to CPJ by messaging app.

In the early hours of March 18, a group of 8 to 10 unidentified men in the western city of Zugdidi beat Mtavari Arkhi camera operator Zviad Ablotia, broke his camera, and threatened the outlet’s correspondent Ema Gogokhia while they were filming outside the local office of the far-right political party Conservative Movement, according to news reports and Giorgi Papava, Gogokhia’s son and a journalist at Mtavari Arkhi, who spoke to CPJ by phone.

Georgian authorities have charged one individual with assaulting the Formula TV camera crew and arrested four men accused of attacking the Mtavari Arkhi journalists, these sources stated.

The attacks were the most recent in several assaults on the press in the past year in Georgia, as CPJ has documented.

“Georgian authorities must demonstrate their commitment to press freedom and the safety of all journalists by ensuring that those responsible for the recent attacks on crews from Mtavari Arkhi and Formula TV are held accountable,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “The reputation of Georgian authorities is on the line if they don’t send a clear message that violence against members of the press will not be tolerated by fully prosecuting all involved.”

On March 17, Chakvetadze, Nikolaishvili, and Tskhovrebashvili were interviewing a Russian citizen who had relocated to Georgia following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A customer who had been drinking and identified himself as Davit Velijanashvili disrupted the interview and demanded they leave, saying he hated Formula TV, as the channel spread disinformation.

On March 17, Formula TV reporter Nano Chakvetadze, camera operator Archil Nikolaishvili (shown), and camera assistant Giga Tskhovrebashvili were attempting to conduct an interview at a bar when they were assaulted by a customer. (Nano Chakvetadze)

When the journalists refused, Velijanashvili struck Chakvetadze on her shoulder and punched Nikolaishvili and Tskhovrebashvili in the face and head, according to Chakvetadze and a statement by the Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia. Nikolaishvili sustained a broken nose, concussion and remains in the hospital following emergency surgery on his nose, Chakvetadze said.

Police arrested Velijanashvili the following day and prosecutors charged him with unlawful interference with a journalist’s professional activities and persecution of persons because of their speech, opinions, or professional activities by violence or threat of violence. These crimes carry penalties of two and three years in prison respectively, according to the criminal code of Georgia.

On March 20, Velijanashvili pleaded guilty to these charges and Tbilisi City Court ordered him remanded in custody for two months, Formula TV reported.

On March 18, the Mtavari Arkhi crew was filming Zugdidi municipality workers removing pro-Ukrainian graffiti that activists had spray painted on the office of the Conservative Movement, which has been accused of being pro-Russia, according to those reports and Papava.

While they were filming, four cars pulled up and a group of 8 to 10 men, some wearing brass knuckles, got out. They tried to punch Ablotia in the face, chased him, hit and kicked him on the back and legs, and threw his camera to the ground, breaking it, Papava said, adding that the men swore at Gogokhia and accused her of being a “U.S. agent.” Mtavari Arkhi posted footage of part of the incident taken by Ablotia on its Facebook page.

Gogokhia recognized the attackers as members of the far-right Alt-Info group which founded the Conservative Movement party last year, Papava told CPJ, adding that he believed their main goal was to destroy the camera equipment to prevent the story from being reported, as it would include the group’s implied pro-Russian stance, which is unpopular in Georgia.

Police officers standing nearby allegedly watched the attack without intervening until other civilians attempted to help the journalists, Papava said, after which police arrested four of the attackers. Ablotia was taken to a nearby clinic with bruising but both journalists escaped serious injury, he added.

The Special Investigation Service, a state investigative body, has launched an investigation into the incident as unlawful interference with a journalist’s professional activities, according to a press release published on its website.

CPJ emailed the Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia for comment but did not immediately receive any reply. Via its Facebook page, the Special Investigation Service sent CPJ its press releases on the Formula and Mtavari Arkhi cases from March 18, but did not reply to requests for further information. CPJ was unable to find contact details for Alt-Info.

In statements on its Facebook page, the Media Advocacy Coalition, an alliance of local and international NGOs, said the attacks on the Formula TV and Mtavari Arkhi crews were “the result of a hostile environment created for the media” and had been “encouraged by [authorities’] inappropriate response to a number of crimes committed against journalists.”

In March 2021, unidentified men beat Formula TV anchor Vakhtang Sanaia, and in May a group of men attacked two journalists working with Mtavari Arkhi, as CPJ documented. In July, hundreds of anti-LGBT protesters attacked more than 50 journalists covering a pride march in Tbilisi, with camera operator Aleksandre Lashkarava later dying after sustaining facial fractures.