Television news, which had rallied support for Georgia’s pro-democracy
revolution three years earlier, suffered serious blows from government harassment, business takeovers, and, as many saw it, self-inflicted scandal. President Mikhail Saakashvili’s administration took an aggressive approach in managing television coverage by pressuring and harassing critical TV reporters. Georgia’s largest television company, with holdings that included the influential Rustavi-2 station, changed hands in November amid considerable intrigue. And the hard-hitting independent station 202 went off the air in the fall after getting caught up in an extortion scandal.
Television is the main source of news in Georgia, where newspaper readership is limited and only a small handful of papers are distributed nationally. Kibar Khalvashi, a Tbilisi businessman who spent three years building television holdings that came to include Rustavi-2 and Mze, suddenly sold his majority shares to a virtually unknown entity called Geotrans LLC. On the air, Rustavi-2 denied speculation that the sale was a politically inspired takeover. The statement offered few details except to call Geotrans “the biggest player” in Georgian television, and to say that the company might sell some of its newly acquired shares to attract capital. The sale became public November 19 amid a shakeup in Saakashvili’s administration. Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who counted Khalvashi among his close allies, resigned November 17 after being shunted to the Economic Development Ministry. Rustavi-2’s tough, independent reporting had earned it near-legendary status in Georgia before and during the Rose Revolution, which brought down the corrupt regime of Eduard Shevardnadze. Under Khalvashi, the station was widely seen as having lost its critical edge; with its new ownership unknown, Rustavi-2’s news department faced an uncertain future.
The government’s efforts to manage television coverage were laid bare on July 6, when Eka Khoperia, the anchor of Rustavi-2’s popular political talk show “Tavisupali Tema” (Free Topic), resigned on the air. The program was to focus on the January murder of Tbilisi bank official Sandro Girgvliani, whose death was linked to Interior Ministry employees, according to news reports. Khoperia claimed on the air that authorities had sought to dictate her choice of guests and the circumstances in which they would appear, according to those reports. “Such conditions are absolutely unacceptable for me, so this is my last program and I quit this television channel,” the BBC quoted Khoperia as saying as she announced a commercial break. The show never returned from the break. At a press conference the next day, Khoperia said unnamed authorities sought in phone conversations to orchestrate the appearance of an Interior Ministry official by limiting comments and questions.
Rustavi-2 also made major personnel changes, sacking station director Nickoloz Tabatadze and news chief Tamar Rukhadze in August. According to the independent daily Rezonansi, Tabatadze had resisted presidential aide Giorgi Arveladze’s attempts to set the editorial policy of the “Kurieri” news program. Tabatadze was replaced by Koba Davarashvili, a close friend of Arveladze who had no television experience, Rezonansi reported. Several Rustavi-2 journalists resigned in protest, saying the dismissals compromised their independence. International press reports quoted opposition leaders as saying they would no longer appear on Rustavi-2.
The private national station Imedi TV became known as the most independent television news source and as an outlet for opposition leaders. Badri Patarkatsishvili, Imedi TV’s owner, said that the government launched politically motivated investigations into his business taxes in February, after the channel aired several reports critical of the Girgvliani murder investigation, according to local and international press reports. Patarkatsishvili told the New York-based news Web site EurasiaNet that regulators were “actively examining my companies in order to induce me to put pressure on Imedi TV journalists and encourage more favorable coverage of authorities.”
Four junior Interior Ministry officials were arrested in the Girgvliani case. The night before the banker’s body was found, witnesses said, he was seen in a Tbilisi bar arguing with officials who were accompanying Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, according to international news reports. Imedi’s reports went further, alleging that several top-level Interior Ministry officials were linked to the murder. In parliamentary hearings, Merabishvili denied any involvement.
The independent channel 202, which broadcast from Tbilisi, was mired in scandal. Shalva Ramishvili, co-owner of the station and former anchor of the tough political talk show “Debatebi” (Debates), was sentenced in March to four years in prison for attempted extortion, and David Kokheridze, the channel’s general director, was sentenced to three years on similar charges. The two had been arrested in 2005 after police videotaped them receiving US$30,000 from a member of parliament. The member, Koba Bekauri, said the two extorted the money in exchange for not airing an investigative report that would have been critical of him. Ramishvili and Kokheridze denied the accusation, claiming that they took the money as part of an undercover investigation.
Although some journalists questioned the government’s motives in the case, others told CPJ that the video spoke for itself and that the verdict was justified. Regardless, the case cut into 202’s popularity and revenue, causing it to suspend broadcasting in October.
Despite behind-the-scenes pressure and government harassment, Georgian law affords some broad protections to the news media. A landmark measure passed in 2004 decriminalized defamation, made it subject to civil action, and placed the burden of proof on the plaintiff. The law also established the right to public debate and defined the notion of a public figure who can be subject to public criticism.
While reporters worked safely in the capital, those in the outlying regions reported getting threats after covering sensitive topics such as corruption and border smuggling of cigarettes, agricultural products, and oil. Journalists in Shida Kartli, a region close to the self-proclaimed republic of South Ossetia, complained of particularly repressive restrictions, according to Nino Gvedashvili of the Tbilisi-based Georgian Human Rights Information and Documentation Center. The journalists accused the Shida Kartli administration of obstructing access to public information and forbidding the publication of local officials’ photographs.
Fearing increased Russian influence in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Saakashvili deployed troops to the Kodori Gorge and expelled several Russian military officers on spying charges. Moscow responded by imposing economic sanctions, severing transportation links, and deporting hundreds of Georgians living in Russia, according to press reports.
Media coverage in the breakaway areas was limited throughout the year. The only Russian-language channel targeting South Ossetian audiences was the Tbilisi-based, government-funded channel Alania. The channel’s limited news content was critical of South Ossetian separatists. Perceptions of one-sided coverage led South Ossetian authorities to interrupt Alania’s broadcasts in January, shortly after the station aired a report criticizing separatist leader Eduard Kokoity, EurasiaNet reported.
Local authorities in Abkhazia also obstructed the work of journalists. On March 7, local police detained freelance journalists Tea Sharia, Georgii Sokhadze, and Teimuraza Eliava on charges of espionage and illegally entering the self-declared republic. The three were sentenced to three months in prison but were released in late March. They had traveled to Abkhazia to make a documentary film about local churches and monasteries in cooperation with the Georgian Orthodox Church, according to local and international press reports.