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Attacks on the Press 2001: Georgia

Rife with corruption, organized crime, and political instability, Georgia is full of stories that are dangerous to tell. Journalists who dare to report on them risk reprisals, often from President Eduard Shevardnadze's strong-armed government.


Most chilling for journalists was the July murder of Georgy Sanaya, a popular, 26-year-old reporter for the Tbilisi-based independent television station Rustavi-2. Sanaya, who anchored "Night Courier," a nightly political talk show featuring interviews with Georgia's leading politicians, was found dead in his apartment on July 26. He had been shot once in the head at close range. His murder shocked the country and shook public confidence in its political leaders. A sluggish, secretive investigation only fed public discontent.

While Sanaya's work was not generally controversial, he had recently hosted a segment on Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, near Chechnya, an area that had been the scene of kidnappings and conflict between Georgians and Chechens. A former parliamentary deputy who appeared on "Night Courier" speculated that criminals from the Pankisi Gorge region may have been responsible for Sanaya's murder.

On December 6, they arrested former police officer Grigol Khurtsilava after a ballistic analysis traced the murder weapon to him, according to the Georgian news agency Black Sea Press. However, law enforcement officials continued to insist that Sanaya's murder was not politically motivated. Local journalists and the Georgian public generally dismissed the official theory, expressing a common view that Sanaya was murdered for his work.

Feeding this belief was the government's continued harassment of Rustavi-2, which has been punished repeatedly for its hard-hitting investigative reports on corruption and abuse of power. In October, Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze publicly threatened that he would take revenge on the station for its reports on allegations of corruption in the Interior and National Security ministries.

On October 31, National Security Ministry agents raided the station's headquarters, claiming they were searching for financial records in connection with charges that the station had not paid some 1 million laris (US$480,000) in taxes. But according to station manager Nika Tabatadze, tax authorities had audited and cleared the station a week before the raid. Station officials believe the move came in reprisal for Rustavi-2's coverage of unrest in the Pankisi Gorge region, its reporting on allegations that Georgia was harboring Chechen rebels, and its reports on ministerial corruption.

Once news of the raid spread, thousands of protestors gathered in central Tbilisi demanding the resignations of Shevardnadze, his entire government, and the Georgian Parliament. Tensions subsided in the following days only after Shevardnadze dismissed his cabinet. The speaker of the parliament, Zurab Zhvaniya, and Prosecutor General Georgy Meparishvili also resigned. Shevardnadze remained in power, but the political crisis weakened him even further, leaving Georgia on the verge of civil unrest.

Reporting on conflict in the Caucasus proved risky for Japanese free-lance journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka, who was kidnapped in the Pankisi Gorge in midyear and held for several months. Tsuneoka was reportedly captured while en route from Georgia to Chechnya to interview Chechen rebels. His captors were not identified, and Tsuneoka was finally freed on December 7 during a Georgian military operation.


February 24

Tamaz Tsertsvadze, Meridiani
ATTACKED

Tsertsvadze, editor of the Tbilisi-based weekly Meridiani, was attacked near his home by a group of unknown individuals. The journalist, who lost consciousness after he was beaten with steel bars, was later taken to hospital in critical condition and treated for a concussion, a broken nose, and broken ribs.

Tsertsvadze told the nonprofit International Center for Journalists that he was not robbed in the attack.

The assault may have been related to Tsertsvadze's journalism. Prior to the attack, Meridiani staff received a number of telephone threats demanding that the newspaper stop criticizing government authorities.

Police launched an investigation into the attack but had not identified any suspects by year's end.

April 1

Meridiani
HARASSED

The editorial offices of the Tblisi-based weekly Meridiani were burglarized. The burglars stole computers containing the latest edition of the newspaper, along with layout templates and other critical files and technical equipment, according to international press reports.

The burglars also rummaged through the desk of Meridiani editor Tamaz Tsertsvadze. Computer cables were slashed, while other valuables, including money, remained untouched.

Tsertsvadze claimed that the robbery was connected to the newspaper's criticism of the Citizen's Union of Georgia, President Shevardnadze's political party, which controls the parliament.

The theft forced Meridiani to halt publication. The police launched an investigation, but no progress had been reported by year's end.

May 21

Rustavi-2
LEGAL ACTION

Former minister of culture Valery Asatiani filed a defamation lawsuit against Rustavi-2, a Tbilisi-based independent television station.

The case stemmed from an April 1 exposé on the news program "60 Minutes" alleging Asatiani's involvement in a murder and subsequent cover-up. Asatiani sought 20,700,000 laris (US$10,000,000) in damages.

According to "60 Minutes" producer and anchor Akaki Gogichaishvili, the program presented an interview with Asatiani's former assistant Irakli Kereselidze, who is serving a life sentence for murdering a man named Bichi Bakhtadze.

The program also included a hidden camera interview with assistant of Asatiani's, Roman Bendeliani, which implicated the minister in the murder, Gogichaishvili told CPJ.

Prosecutor General Georgy Meparishvili later released a statement accusing "60 Minutes" of violating the law by using a hidden camera during the second interview, Rustavi-2 told CPJ. Meparshvili also claimed that "60 Minutes" acted illegally by convincing the victim's relatives to exhume the body.

Rustavi-2 maintains that its staff obeyed the law. Meparishvili resigned later in the year after a failed raid on Rustavi-2 caused mass protests. Asatiani's lawsuit was still pending at year's end.

July 1

Kosuke Tsuneoka, free-lancer
Missing

Tsuneoka, a Japanese free-lance journalist, was kidnapped in Georgia's notorious Pankisi Gorge and held for several months.

Tsuneoka was reportedly travelling from Georgia to Chechnya to interview Chechen rebels when he was abducted by unidentified individuals. Prior to this trip, Tsuneoka had worked in Moscow as a free-lance journalist.

Tsuneoka, 32, last communicated with his family via e-mail at the end of July after arriving in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, the Japan Economic Newswire reported. He wrote that he planned to visit Chechnya.

Tsuneoka also e-mailed his friend Kendziro Kato, a Tokyo-based military journalist, telling him that he would return from Chechnya to Georgia by August 15. Tsuneoka was traveling on a one-month Georgian visa, ITAR-TASS reported.

Tsuneoka was first thought to have gone missing in Chechnya. The Kremlin claimed he was not accredited to work in the Northern Caucasus Region and denied any knowledge of the journalist's whereabouts. But Russian officials pledged they would try to find him.

The Georgian Interior Ministry stated that it had no information on Tsuneoka's location, while the Georgian Foreign Ministry's press center said the journalist had not requested accreditation, according to ITAR-TASS.

Tsuneoka was freed on December 7 during a Georgian military operation, according to international reports.

July 26

Georgy Sanaya, Rustavi-2
KILLED

Sanaya, a popular 26-year-old Georgian journalist, was found dead in his Tbilisi apartment. He had been shot once in the head at close range with a 9 mm weapon. Sanaya anchored "Night Courier," a nightly political talk show in which he interviewed Georgia's leading politicians on the independent television station Rustavi-2.

Nika Tabatadze, news director of Rustavi-2, told CPJ that Sanaya's colleagues became concerned when he failed to report for work at the usual time on the afternoon of July 26 and did not answer his home or cellular telephones. That evening, a group of co-workers went to his apartment and knocked repeatedly on the door. When no one answered, they called the police, who entered the apartment and discovered Sanaya's body.

In a special television address, President Eduard Shevardnadze directed the minister of internal affairs, the prosecutor general, and the minister of state security to oversee the investigation personally. On July 27, President Shevardnadze met with U.S. chargé d'affaires Philip Remler and asked for the FBI's help in the investigation, according to Georgian and Russian press sources.

Although the police, assisted by a group of FBI agents, immediately launched an investigation, it failed to produce significant results. A suspect was detained in August but was later released due to lack of evidence, CPJ sources reported.

Sanaya's Rustavi-2 colleagues firmly believe that the murder resulted from his professional work, although they were not aware of any specific threats against the journalist. Erosi Kitsmarishvili, executive director of Rustavi-2, told CPJ that the murder could have been intended to intimidate the station, which is known for its investigative reporting on state corruption and misuse of power in Georgia. The station has frequently been the target of government harassment in recent years.

While Sanaya's work was not generally controversial, he had recently hosted a segment on Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, a lawless area near the Chechen border that is known for drug smuggling and kidnapping. A former parliamentary deputy who appeared on the program speculated publicly that criminals from the Pankisi Gorge region may have been responsible for Sanaya's murder.

On December 6, police arrested former police officer Grigol Khurtsilava after a ballistic analysis traced the murder weapon to him, the Georgian news agency Black Sea Press reported. Acting on his confession, police found the murder weapon and keys to Sanaya's apartment. Khurtsilava was then officially charged with Sanaya's murder. In early February 2002, the Prosecutor General's Office announced that it will forward Khurtsilava's case to the courts and insisted that Sanaya's murder was not politically motivated, the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme situations reported. Sanaya's colleagues maintain he was killed because of his work.

October 31

Rustavi-2
HARASSED

Some 30 agents from Georgia's National Security Ministry raided the independent television station Rustavi-2's headquarters in the capital, Tbilisi, in an effort to obtain the station's financial records.

Rustavi-2, Georgia's most influential and respected broadcast outlet, is known for its exposés of government corruption and other abuses of authority.

National Security Ministry officials claimed the station was suspected of not paying some one million laris (US$480,000) in taxes, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported. But according to the station manager, Nika Tabatadze, tax authorities had audited and cleared the station a week earlier.

Several days before the raid, Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze publicly threatened Rustavi-2, according to local sources. Targamadze accused Rustavi-2 of "conspiring" against the Interior Ministry and threatened to "knock them on their backs," the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations reported.

Targamadze's threat came in response to recent allegations about corruption in the Interior and National Security ministries that were made on the Rustavi-2 program "Night Courier."

Akaki Gogichaishvili, head of Rustavi-2's popular "60 Minutes" news program, attributed the raid to Rustavi-2's coverage of the restive Pankisi Gorge Region, near the Chechen border, where kidnapping and drug smuggling flourish.

In the weeks prior to the raid, Rustavi-2 had also reported extensively on allegations that Georgia was harboring Chechen rebels.

Rustavi-2 responded to the raid by broadcasting live the standoff between security agents and station officials outside its office in the center of Tbilisi, local sources reported.

Once news of the raid spread throughout Tbilisi, members of Parliament and local nongovernmental organizations immediately denounced the government crackdown. Hundreds of Rustavi-2 supporters gathered outside the station in an effort to prevent further government actions, according to news reports.

On October 31, thousands of protesters gathered in central Tbilisi to protest the raid, RFE/RL reported. President Shevardnadze, meanwhile, accepted the resignation of National Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze over the affair.

Shevardnadze also instructed Prosecutor General Georgy Meparishvili to investigate the legality of the raid, local sources reported. Meparishvili ruled that the raid was legal but later resigned.

November 12

Rustavi-2
ATTACKED, HARASSED

Police detained and assaulted a television crew from the popular investigative program "60 Minutes," which airs on the independent station Rustavi-2. The crew was working on a story about the narcotics trade in the Pankisi region at the time.

The crewmembers were stopped at a police checkpoint as they entered the region. When they identified themselves as journalists, they were taken to the local police station and beaten up.

A few hours later, the crew was released. When questioned by Rustavi-2 officials, the police denied any impropriety.

November 14

Izida Chaniya, Nuzhnaya Gazeta
HARASSED

Chaniya, editor of the independent weekly Nuzhnaya Gazeta, received a threatening telephone call giving her 72 hours to leave the Abkhazia region, local and international sources reported.

One week earlier, the newspaper had published a front-page article arguing that Georgia needed a new president.

Abkhazia is a volatile region with a strong separatist movement and a conflict-ridden history. Over the past few years, Nuzhnaya Gazeta has published numerous articles about high-level corruption and abuse of power in Abkhazia, according to the Georgian news agency Black Sea Press. As a result, the paper has often faced official harassment.

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