Media Feel Limits to Georgia’s Democracy
By DAN BILEFSKY and MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ
TBILISI, Georgia — The cameras at Georgia’s main opposition
broadcaster, Imedi, kept rolling Nov. 7, when masked riot police
machine guns burst into the studio. They smashed equipment, ordered
and television guests to lie on the floor and confiscated their
news anchor remained on-screen throughout, describing the mayhem. Then
The pretext for the raid — which silenced the channel — was
a government claim that Imedi was fomenting unrest when it broadcast a
statement by one of its founders, Badri Patarkatsishvili, promising to
government of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Earlier that day, riot police officers lashed out with clubs
and fired rubber bullets at unarmed antigovernment protesters. A
of emergency followed.
Now, 11 months later, Georgia’s
democratic credentials are
again being questioned, and tested, as the country finds itself on the
line of a confrontation between Russia and the West.
Georgia and its American backers,
including the Republican
and Democratic United States presidential contenders, have presented
a plucky little democracy in an unstable region, a country deserving of
generous aid and NATO membership. But a growing number of critics
outside the country argue that it falls well short of Western
standards and cite a lack of press freedom as a glaring example.
Mr. Saakashvili, a telegenic New
York-trained lawyer, came
to power in 2004 after a wave of protests known as the Rose Revolution,
promising to shed the authoritarianism of the past. But Lincoln A.
Georgia expert at Columbia University, contended that Mr. Saakashvili
presided over a “semiauthoritarian” state, while saying that it was the
democratic of the former Soviet states in the region.
“The reality is that the Saakashvili
government is the
fourth one-party state that Georgia has had during the last 20 years,
back to the Soviet period,” he said. “And nowhere has this been more
than in the restrictions on media freedom.”
In its most recent report, Freedom
House, a human rights
research group based in New York, ranked Georgia, in terms of press
a level with Colombia and behind Nigeria, Malawi, Indonesia and Ukraine
last a NATO aspirant, like Georgia.
A 2008 State Department report on
progress said that respect for freedom of speech, the press and
worsened during the 2007 crisis and that there continued to be reports
enforcement officers acting with impunity” and “government pressure on
Sozar Subari, Georgia’s ombudsman for
human rights, an
independent watchdog appointed by Parliament, accused the government of
stifling press freedom by ensuring that sympathetic managers were
directors at national broadcasters.
“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
Subari said. “We have some of the best freedom-of-expression laws in
but in practice, the government is so afraid of criticism that it has
compelled to raid media offices and to intimidate journalists and bash
Nino Zuriashvili, a Georgian
investigative journalist who
said she broadcast on the Internet to bypass censorship, said that
Saakashvili, nearly a dozen broadcasting outlets had been winnowed to a
handful, and several political talk shows had been shut down. “The
that there was more media freedom before the Rose Revolution,” she
Mr. Saakashvili himself, asked about
press freedom on a
recent visit to New York, conceded at an Atlantic Council luncheon that
need to have more debate and more transparency.” But he insisted,
“There are no
Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze, a close
ally of Mr.
Saakashvili, retorted that market forces were driving the consolidation
media. Annual spending on television and newspaper advertising in
about $50 million, he said, not enough to support a dozen broadcasters.
raid on Imedi was not Georgia’s “finest hour,” he said in an interview,
insisted that opposition voices were represented across Georgian media.
“All this talk of media censorship is a
tired cliché,” he
said, noting that opposition candidates in recent presidential and
parliamentary elections had at least equal time on the main television
Some critics said the culture of
censorship was particularly
pronounced during the brief war with Russia in August. They accused the
government of obfuscating reality to portray Georgia as both victim and
Nino Jangirashvili is the director of
broadcaster Kavkasia, which is independently owned and run. She said
Aug. 10, when Mr. Saakashvili called for a cease-fire, government
were briefing broadcasters that Georgian troops controlled Tskhinvali,
capital of breakaway South Ossetia, even as Georgian soldiers there
frantically calling Kavkasia to say they had been overrun by the
were hiding in trees.
She said the station refrained from
reporting the extent of
what it knew, for fear of being shut down or labeled as Russian agents.
engaged in self-censorship because of the political environment of fear
intimidation,” she said.
Giga Bokeria, the deputy foreign
minister, who is a member
of the governing party, National Movement, and is a close ally of Mr.
Saakashvili, said that during the war, the government asked
some cases not to make reports that could incite panic or be used by
propaganda. But he was emphatic that it had provided journalists with
information; the Georgian retreat from Tskhinvali on Aug. 10 was
publicly, he said. Indeed, by noon that day, the Georgian news media
The government’s control of the news
media, critics say, is
best seen at Rustavi 2, the most popular television channel. Once he
power, Mr. Saakashvili moved to cement his hold over it, said Kibar
Rustavi 2’s former owner, who has become a critic of the government.
Mr. Khalvashi said in an interview that
in 2004, a close
friend who was then Georgia’s minister of defense, Irakli Okruashvili,
him to buy a majority stake in Rustavi 2, and he agreed. Two years
Mr. Okruashvili joined the opposition, Mr. Khalvashi said Mr.
personally pressed him to sell his 78 percent stake in the channel to a
proposed by the government whose identity was not disclosed to him. “He
to release these shares if I wanted to have a good life in Georgia,” he
Once he parted with his shares, Mr.
Khalvashi said, the
government began a campaign of intimidation and interference in his
construction and consumer goods businesses; he said he was fined about
million by financial regulators and pushed into bankruptcy. He has
to Germany, where he is seeking political asylum.
Mr. Bokeria, the deputy foreign
minister, denied Mr.
Khalvashi’s allegations, calling them politically motivated; his
been fined, Mr. Bokeria said, because he had broken the law.
According to Rustavi 2’s licensing
documents, dated December
2007 and on file at Georgia’s national broadcast regulator, the
current majority owner is Geomedia Group, registered in the Marshall
whose controlling director is not publicly known. Its minority
the Georgian Industrial Group, controlled by two brothers, David
a member of the governing party, and Gela Bezhuashvili, director of the
Intelligence Service of Georgia.
Irakli Chikovani, Rustavi 2’s general
director for 10
months, said that as far as he knew, there had been no instances of
trying to put pressure on the station’s journalists.
“I think it inconceivable for someone to
call a journalist,
say not to do something, and for the journalist to stay quiet,” he
Eka Khoperia, a former news director at
Rustavi 2, said that
at times her phone had rung constantly with government officials
influence reporting. The pressure was so strong, she said, that she
resigned on the air in July 2006 to protest government attempts to
her handling of a story on the murder of a bank official in which
the Interior Ministry were implicated.
In August of that year, other Rustavi 2
staff members staged
a strike to protest the dismissal of the station’s general director and
replacement with a government ally.
Ms. Khoperia said Georgian journalists
deserved some blame
for not holding the government to account. She said that in Georgia’s
developing democracy, journalists and those who went on to become
worked together in the prelude to the Rose Revolution, and the lines
them became blurred afterward. “They were our friends and we were
one group,” she said. “It took us journalists too long to adapt to the
reality. Often we behaved like politicians. We should have taken a step
As for Imedi, it reopened in early
September, and is now
owned by Josef Kei, a pro-government businessman and a cousin of Mr.
Patarkatsishvili, the Imedi founder. (Rupert Murdoch’s News
held power of attorney over Imedi, no longer has a stake in the
Patarkatsishvili became a candidate for the Georgian presidency after
on Imedi and was accused of taking part in a coup against the
lost the election and died of a heart attack at his home near London
Nona Kandiashvili, a spokeswoman for the
family, said the family was contesting Mr. Kei’s ownership. Imedi,
has been nicknamed Rustavi 3 by Georgian journalists because of its new
Olesya Vartanyan contributed reporting.