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Journalism is becoming an increasingly dangerous profession in Georgia

Media freedom in Georgia has had a turbulent history. It is worth remembering the raid on the Imedi TV station by special forces and its closure during the Saakashvili era, or the year-long dispute over ownership rights of Rustavi 2. However, there has never been a simultaneous physical attack on over 50 media employees like the one on July 5th. Is the freedom of speech under serious threat in Georgia?

September 14, 2021 - Wojciech Wojtasiewicz - Analysis

Jul 14, 2021: A manifestation in tribute to a journalist beaten during the Tbilisi Pride event. Photo By Wirestock Creators / Shutterstock

Following yet another attempt to organise a march for the dignity of sexual minorities in the streets of Georgia’s capital, the Georgian society reached a boiling point. A few days before the planned march, the media, television in particular, informed about the event, aired programmes on discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and invited representatives of the Tbilisi Pride organisation to participate in discussions. As a sign of solidarity with non-heteronormative people, journalists from the pro-opposition Formula channel pinned small rainbow flags onto their jackets. The opponents of equality, headed by a pro-Russian businessman and the leader of the small, ultra-conservative “Unity, Essence, Hope” movement, Levan Vasadze, and the leader of the Georgian Idea movement, Guram Palavandishvili, announced the mobilisation and blockade of the “sodomite march”. The influential Georgian Orthodox Church was also unflattering about the planned event of the LGBT community.

Carnage in Tbilisi

On July 5th a few thousand opponents of the march gathered on the Rustaveli avenue. Among them were Orthodox clergymen who were shouting at members of the LGBTQ+ community. The organisers had received a series of threats, which also included violence and murder. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili accused the organisers of Tbilisi Pride of colluding with the opposition and former president Mikheil Saakashvili. The interior ministry urged activists to cancel the march. It claimed that it would not be able to offer protection for its participants. In the end the organisers were forced to call it off.

The absence of the LGBTQ+ community on the streets of Tbilisi led to the aggression of the hateful crowd to be redirected towards the journalists following the events. Over 50 media employees – reporters and cameramen – were attacked and beaten. In many instances their equipment was destroyed. Alexander Lashkarava, a camera operator for Pirveli, received the most severe beating resulting in a concussion and facial fractures. He died a few days later. His family claimed that it was most likely the result of thrombosis, but the authorities claimed it was from overdosing on drugs. Lashakrava was taking strong narcotic-like pain killers. These, however, were proscribed to him by doctors. The furious crowd would also trash the headquarters of Tbilisi Pride, triumphantly ripping down the rainbow flag displayed on its balcony. The scene was one of carnage.

The death of the cameraman and the beating of dozens of journalists was a shock to the media world and to a significant part of the Georgian society. Never in Georgia’s recent history had there been such a direct attack against journalists. Prior it was mostly single attacks and harassment towards journalism by the authorities, or illegal acquisition of the rights to ownership of TV stations. Further indignation was spurred by the indirect support of the counter demonstrators expressed by the prime minister.

Television as a window to the world

For a distinct majority of Georgians (from 60 to 80 per cent according to various polls) TV is the main source of information. Recent years has seen social media growing in significance when it comes to gaining knowledge of internal and external political events. The role of printed press is marginal. Therefore, anyone in power in Georgia would want to control the television channels. This is also why Mikheil Saakashvili’s team tried to take over the two largest private channels – Rustavi 2 and Imedi, as both were portraying the political reality in the country, which favoured the opposition instead of supporting the government.

These channels were created in 1994 and 2003 respectively. Rustavi 2 played an important role during the Rose Revolution and the removal of Eduard Shevarnadze from power through its coverage of anti-governmental protests. During Saakashvili’s reign, the channel was taken over by a straw man entrepreneur who bought it from its founders. They were made an offer they could not refuse. If they had refused, they would have faced frequent tax inspections that would eventually result in the property being seized without any “compensation”.

Imedi, on the other hand, fell out with Saakashvili at the end of 2007. It was covering mass protests that erupted in Tbilisi. Its owner was a Georgian oligarch, Badri Patarkatsishvili, who had made his fortune in Russia. He decided to enter politics in order to remove Saakashvili from power. In early 2008, he ran for the presidency, but eventually lost. The TV station’s headquarters were raided by secret services, its studio demolished and the station closed for three months. The official reason for this behaviour was the accusation of the channel being involved in a coup allegedly controlled from Moscow. In the end it was taken from its rightful owners and soon after Badri Patarkatsishvili died of a heart attack in his London residence, which, of course, sparked a wave of speculation.

Following the rise to power of the Georgian Dream movement of Bidzina Ivanishvili in 2012, the rightful owners of Rustavi 2 and Imedi attempted to regain their ownership. As for Imedi, things moved pretty quickly, with the TV channel being returned to the widow of Patarkatsishvili. The situation regarding Rustavi 2, however, was becoming complicated. Its boss, Nika Gvaramia, a former justice and education minister during the Saakashvili era, set out on a legal campaign both in Georgia and abroad. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Georgia followed by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, confirmed that the TV station should return to the control of Kibar Khalvashi, its former owner. Rustavi 2 transformed from a critical opposition channel to an openly pro-governmental one. Gvaramia and his co-workers decided to create a new TV station – Mtavari Arkhi (Main channel). It became the largest opposition channel openly supportive of the former ruling party – the United National Movement.

Government control and attacks

Any group in power will always control the Georgian Public Television (Channel 1 and Ajara TV). However, its viewership has been dropping for years and its influence on the electorate has become rather limited. The majority of the TV audience are viewers of the private channels. Among them are the aforementioned stations: Imedi, Mtavari Arkhi and Rustavi 2. There are also several smaller channels such as Maestro (with a pro-government profile), Formula and Pirveli (pro-opposition profile). Unfortunately, all TV stations have had problems with remaining objective during the entire period of Georgian independence. They have always taken on a narrative either in support of the government or in favour of the opposition.

Journalists were also the target of physical attacks by police during the opposition protests in the autumn of 2007. A similar situation occurred in the spring of 2011, following a wave of protest against the rule of Saakashvili. Ten Georgian and foreign journalists were injured when a demonstration was dispersed. They lost their press identification and equipment. An extreme example is the August war in 2008. Two journalists (Georgian and Russian) and a cameraman (Dutch) lost their lives and a dozen Georgian and foreign journalists were injured.

Another recurring problem has been the pressure exerted on journalists by the heads of TV stations employed by the party in power at the time. In previous years this has led to loud public departures or firing of journalists from different TV channels. These people would lose their programmes under the pretext of a change in the scheduling or other off the cuff reasons. One of the most well-known cases was the walkout of journalist Eka Khoperia who left Rustavi 2 in 2006. She declared on air that she was ending her work with the channel because she did not agree to do the bidding of the authorities. In March 2009, Inga Grigolia resigned from the position of vice director of the Georgian Public Television in protest against not being allowed to publish an interview with Irakli Okruashvili, a former defence minister and one of the main adversaries to Saakashvili. There were also incidents of surveillance of journalists. The authorities were trying to find leverage against media workers in order to use it for black mailing purposes if necessary.

Criticism is OK, but after the election

Following the July 5th events, one of the most popular journalists of the younger generation, Guram Rogava, ripped apart a piece of paper representing the constitution during his own show “Postscriptum” which features on Rustavi 2. He declared that this was what the Georgian authorities had done to the constitution by not being able to offer security for media workers during the protests against Tbilisi Pride.

“My critique was strong, but warranted,” Rogava said to me. He is also a former employee of TV9, Imedi and Georgian National Television. He did not inform his superiors about his plans before his programme. He claimed he never had to discuss his script with the heads of the station. According to him the attacks on journalists were not a spontaneous but rather planned. The government explained that it did not have enough police officers to protect the journalists. However, my interlocutor notices that these attacks went on for several hours. Therefore, the authorities, being aware of what was happening, could have sent additional patrols to deal with the situation. Not only did they not do that, to make matters worse, through the prime minister’s mouth they actually allowed for the violence to take place.

“The authorities sent us journalists a clear message. You are not safe in this country. You cannot criticise us. You must be obedient,” Rogava concluded.

After the programme the journalist had a conversation with his superiors. He heard words of praise for a job well done. They understood that in such a situation a strong and direct critique of the conduct of the authorities was justified. However, one week later, a new director of political programmes was appointed at the station. Varlam Avaliani had been a journalist with Maestro and a vice minister of defence in the Georgian Dream government; and the situation made a 180-degree reversal. Rogava was told that he had to tone down criticism of the government and be less combative. The reason behind this request was the upcoming municipal elections on October 2nd. Georgian Dream has faced a serious internal crisis over the last year. The opposition has accused them of falsifying last year’s parliamentary election. For many months opposition MPs boycotted the work of the legislature. This came to an end when the majority decided to enter the parliament following an agreement with the Georgian Dream, a result of the mediation by Charles Michel – the president of the European Council. One of the terms of the settlement was to call for early parliamentary elections (the opposition had been demanding them for many months) if Georgian Dream won less than 43 per cent of the votes in the local election. However, a few months later the ruling party broke the agreement, shifting the blame onto their adversaries and claiming that they had not fulfilled all the provisions of the agreement. According to Georgian Dream, the condition of receiving more than 40 per cent in the upcoming elections has become obsolete. The opposition regarded this step as an expression of the government’s concern about the unfavourable results of the elections. It emphasised that it intends to treat the upcoming elections as a kind of referendum on the rule of the Georgian Dream.

“I have learned that I am supposed to refrain from actions such as the one from July 5th ahead of the election. I have also been told that my programme would be cancelled in its current form. Instead, I was offered a new programme called ‘Postscriptum elections’. Politicians from the largest political parties would appear in it, presenting their election agendas. My comments and opinions would to be kept to a minimum,” Rogava told me.

This change would only last until the election. After that he would return to the original format. Rogava would be able to continue working for Rustavi 2 if he would agree to the proposed terms.

“I did not agree to them,” he told me. “They even wanted to send me on paid leave until after the election, as long as I would not be on TV. I left Rustavi 2. And I will start working for Formula in the beginning of September.” Rogava makes it clear that there has never been ideal conditions in any of the TV stations he has worked for. However, for him, the most important was independence and objectivity. When the situation worsens in this respect, he decides to leave.

At Formula, Rogava has been promised freedom in the choice of topics and guests in a programme that would combine news and a political talk show.  

“In the media world I am known as uncompromising and critical towards all the actors on the political stage. I am not in favour of any political option. I have never been, and never will be, a servant of any of the political parties. My ambition is to present the whole spectre of reality,” he declares.

In my conversation with Rogava, he explains that the issue of media freedom in Georgia has been around since the regaining of independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The difference between Saakashvili times and those of Bidzina Ivanishvili is that the former attacked media directly, while the latter does delicately. Pressure is often exerted behind closed doors, unlike the Imedi case from 2007. The July 5th events, however, are a clear change from the previous trend. Also in July, there was an incident involving Tea Tsulukiani – a deputy prime minister and minister of culture. She plucked the microphone from a Pirveli journalist and began to parody her work.

“The problem is the growing polarisation of the media and the politicians’ involvement of journalists in their games and disputes,” Rogava explained to me. In addition, representatives of the ruling party refuse to participate in programmes on channels which they perceive as pro-opposition. Most politicians do not want to talk, frankly speaking, they have nothing interesting to offer to the public. But they do accuse each other of mistakes, faults and failures.”

According to Rogava Georgia needs a new political force in order to leave the dogfight between Georgian Dream and the United National Movement which has been ongoing for the last 11 years. These parties attack each other focusing on a negative, rather than a positive agenda.

Journalism in Georgia is a high-risk endeavour. I experienced this first-hand when I was in Georgia. In June 2019 I was covering the first LGBTQ+ festival – Tbilisi Pride as well as the anti-Russian and anti-governmental protests (also known as Gavrilov’s Night) for Polish media. Returning to the hostel I was surrounded by a group of undercover police officers who wanted to detain me suspecting I was a protester. Their aggression, shouting and pulling only halted when I showed them my press ID and explained that I am a Polish journalist. This did not save me from having to show my footage and deleting some if it.

Georgia’s position in the rankings of media freedom has evolved. The lowest position was in 2012 (104th place), which was during the rule of the United National Movement. It has reached its highest position over the last three years (60th place). Despite its rise in rankings Georgia still finds itself on the spectre of countries with partially-free media. The Georgian media landscape is described as pluralistic, but polarised, which adequately describes the situation. The events of July 5th will surely be reflected in next year’s ranking, where Georgia is bound to drop.  

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Wojciech Wojtasiewicz is a journalist, a regular contributor to the Polish Nowa Europa Wschodnia and a member of the Association “Bridge to Georgia”. He has been published in Polityka, Krytyka Polityczna, Newsweek Polska and OpenDemocracy.

This article is part of a project titled “Freedom of speech under duress – today’s experiences and their consequences“ co-financed by the Warsaw office of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

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