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News Media Feel Limits to Georgia’s Democracy


TBILISI, Georgia — The cameras at Georgia’s main opposition broadcaster, Imedi, kept rolling Nov. 7, when masked riot police officers with machine guns burst into the studio. They smashed equipment, ordered employees and television guests to lie on the floor and confiscated their cellphones. A news anchor remained on-screen throughout, describing the mayhem. Then all went black.

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 topple the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Earlier that day, riot police officers lashed out with clubs and fired rubber bullets at unarmed antigovernment protesters. A nine-day state of emergency followed.

Now, 11 months later, Georgia’s democratic credentials are again being questioned, and tested, as the country finds itself on the front 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 Georgia as a plucky little democracy in an unstable region, a country deserving of generous aid and NATO membership. But a growing number of critics inside and outside the country argue that it falls well short of Western democratic 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. Mitchell, a Georgia expert at Columbia University, contended that Mr. Saakashvili now presided over a “semiauthoritarian” state, while saying that it was the most 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, going back to the Soviet period,” he said. “And nowhere has this been more apparent 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 freedom, on a level with Colombia and behind Nigeria, Malawi, Indonesia and Ukraine — the last a NATO aspirant, like Georgia.

A 2008 State Department report on Georgia’s democratic progress said that respect for freedom of speech, the press and assembly worsened during the 2007 crisis and that there continued to be reports of “law enforcement officers acting with impunity” and “government pressure on the judiciary.”

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 installed as 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 in,” Mr. Subari said. “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 and to intimidate journalists and bash their equipment.”

Nino Zuriashvili, a Georgian investigative journalist who said she broadcast on the Internet to bypass censorship, said that under Mr. Saakashvili, nearly a dozen broadcasting outlets had been winnowed to a handful, and several political talk shows had been shut down. “The paradox is that there was more media freedom before the Rose Revolution,” she said.

Mr. Saakashvili himself, asked about press freedom on a recent visit to New York, conceded at an Atlantic Council luncheon that “we need to have more debate and more transparency.” But he insisted, “There are no taboos.”

Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze, a close ally of Mr. Saakashvili, retorted that market forces were driving the consolidation of media. Annual spending on television and newspaper advertising in Georgia is about $50 million, he said, not enough to support a dozen broadcasters. The raid on Imedi was not Georgia’s “finest hour,” he said in an interview, but he 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 stations.

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 victor.

Nino Jangirashvili is the director of the Tbilisi broadcaster Kavkasia, which is independently owned and run. She said that on Aug. 10, when Mr. Saakashvili called for a cease-fire, government officials were briefing broadcasters that Georgian troops controlled Tskhinvali, the capital of breakaway South Ossetia, even as Georgian soldiers there were frantically calling Kavkasia to say they had been overrun by the Russians and 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. “We engaged in self-censorship because of the political environment of fear and 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 broadcasters in some cases not to make reports that could incite panic or be used by Russia as propaganda. But he was emphatic that it had provided journalists with accurate information; the Georgian retreat from Tskhinvali on Aug. 10 was acknowledged publicly, he said. Indeed, by noon that day, the Georgian news media reported Russian control.

The government’s control of the news media, critics say, is best seen at Rustavi 2, the most popular television channel. Once he came to power, Mr. Saakashvili moved to cement his hold over it, said Kibar Khalvashi, 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, asked him to buy a majority stake in Rustavi 2, and he agreed. Two years later, when Mr. Okruashvili joined the opposition, Mr. Khalvashi said Mr. Saakashvili personally pressed him to sell his 78 percent stake in the channel to a person proposed by the government whose identity was not disclosed to him. “He told me to release these shares if I wanted to have a good life in Georgia,” he said.

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 $37 million by financial regulators and pushed into bankruptcy. He has since moved to Germany, where he is seeking political asylum.

Mr. Bokeria, the deputy foreign minister, denied Mr. Khalvashi’s allegations, calling them politically motivated; his businesses had 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 channel’s current majority owner is Geomedia Group, registered in the Marshall Islands, whose controlling director is not publicly known. Its minority shareholder is the Georgian Industrial Group, controlled by two brothers, David Bezhuashvili, a member of the governing party, and Gela Bezhuashvili, director of the Foreign 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 officials 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 said.

Eka Khoperia, a former news director at Rustavi 2, said that at times her phone had rung constantly with government officials seeking to influence reporting. The pressure was so strong, she said, that she finally resigned on the air in July 2006 to protest government attempts to influence her handling of a story on the murder of a bank official in which employees of 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 his 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 young developing democracy, journalists and those who went on to become politicians worked together in the prelude to the Rose Revolution, and the lines between them became blurred afterward. “They were our friends and we were together in one group,” she said. “It took us journalists too long to adapt to the new reality. Often we behaved like politicians. We should have taken a step back.”

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 Corporation, which held power of attorney over Imedi, no longer has a stake in the company.) Mr. Patarkatsishvili became a candidate for the Georgian presidency after the raid on Imedi and was accused of taking part in a coup against the government. He lost the election and died of a heart attack at his home near London this year.

Nona Kandiashvili, a spokeswoman for the Patarkatsishvili family, said the family was contesting Mr. Kei’s ownership. Imedi, meanwhile, has been nicknamed Rustavi 3 by Georgian journalists because of its new pro-government line.


Olesya Vartanyan contributed reporting.


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