Deterioration of media environment has become irreversible
In the recent period, the media environment in the country has worsened considerably. It has become dangerous for journalists to perform their professional duties, especially if they represent the media critical of the government. The aggressive rhetoric on the part of the ruling party members and disinformation campaign in the social media presumably supported by them, politically motivated cases and obstruction of journalists’ work by the state as well as the latter’s failure to respond properly to violence – this is an inexhaustive list of the problems that representatives of the media critical of the authorities are facing today. Increasingly frequent violent attacks on journalists are nothing but the echo of the government’s aggressive attitudes towards dissenting views.
We reviewed the deteriorating media environment in our report published in the run-up to the parliamentary elections and covering the period of 2016-2020. This blog post describes the main challenges that the media has been facing during the period since the parliamentary elections.
Violence against media
Over the past several months, violent attacks on journalists have become considerably more frequent. These attacks have been related to carrying out professional duties by the media. It is important that the law enforcement bodies not only launch investigations but also identify perpetrators in a timely manner and hold them responsible. Experience shows that such facts often fail to prompt appropriate response, namely, investigation is protracted, journalists are not recognised as injured parties and other, which, in turn, encourages violence and further complicates the work of media representatives.
On 25 February, Formula TV journalist Vakho Sanaia was attacked and physically assaulted. Sanaia has linked this assault to his work as a journalist. Furthermore, an investigation has been launched concerning letters containing threats against Sanaia’s family. In addition, according to Formula TV’s statement, two more incidents occurred on 9 April. Specifically, at 3 o’clock in the morning, during the curfew, the TV company driver’s car marked with the channel logo was damaged. The car windows were smashed but nothing was stolen from the car. In the second incident, Formula TV driver was beaten, left with visible signs of physical assault.
The police have detained three people for assault on Sanaia, and the court remanded them in pre-trial custody. In parallel with the court proceedings, persons affiliated with Georgian Dream and known to the public have been engaged in an active campaign to discredit and threaten the journalist. Tbilisi City Council member Vato Shakarishvili, famous singer and TV host Gia Gachechiladze and actor Davit Khurtsilava demanded to release the persons charged with assault against Vakho Sanaia and offered to stand bail for them, but the court did not uphold the request of the defence.
On 7 May, according to a report disseminated by Mtavari Arkhi TV, the company journalist, Irakli Vachiberidze was verbally and physically assaulted while performing professional duties by the metropolitan bishop of Vani and Baghdati.
On 4 May, on the territory of Davit Gareja Monastery Complex, clergy representatives verbally and physically assaulted the filming crew of Mtavari Arkhi TV and damaged their equipment. Later on, after the crew members had left the place of the incident, they were confronted by the local population in the village of Udabno. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the investigation was launched pursuant to the article on violence. On 5 May, representatives of Formula TV were also insulted and threatened in Udabno Village.
Intoxicated individuals attacked a filming crew of the media holding Kvira. An investigation was launched pursuant to the article on interfering with the work of journalists.
According to the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB), its filming crew was physically assaulted during the confrontation in Dmanisi on 17 May. GPB addressed all relevant authorities, demanding to identify the perpetrators and punish them in accordance with the law.
Radio Marneuli journalist Vladimir Chkhitunidze’s telephone was taken away from him when he was covering a rally of workers on a strike. He was prohibited from recording a video. An investigation was launched into the incident.
On 16 January, law enforcers obstructed the work of on.ge journalist Khatia Ghoghoberidze who was performing her professional duty by covering a protest rally.
In the Chkondidi Eparchy, during the coverage of a confrontation between clerics, media representatives became targets of particularly heightened aggression. Journalists had to cover the events while facing violence, threats and obstruction. On 8 March, while covering the confrontation between the parties, up to 10 people, including media representatives, fell from a several-meter-high balcony, sustaining injuries.
During the dispersal of a rally outside the Central Election Commission building on 8 November 2020, the police severely violated citizens’ constitutional right to assembly and manifestation, and law enforcers dispersed the rally using excessive force. The rights of media representatives were also crudely violated during the said incident, including several journalists sustaining physical injuries. TV Pirveli cameraman Papuna Khachidze had his eye damaged by a water jet and had to have a surgery later; Formula TV cameraman Nika Matiashvili was also injured as a result of using a water cannon; a water jet damaged Netgazeti journalist Sopo Apriamashvili’s eye; Formula TV cameraman Giorgi Japaridze had been drenched by a water jet and, having continued working in this state, lost consciousness; Formula journalist Ana Baratashvili was pushed out of a minibus by the pressure of a water jet, sustaining bodily injuries as a result; four journalists of two Radio Liberty filming crews were injured; Rustavi 2 cameraman was mildly injured; JRC journalist Giga Abuladze was injured by a water jet. An opposition representative verbally assaulted GPB and Imedi TV journalists. According to Imedi, one of the rally participants attacked their journalist. During the rally dispersal, six cameras of TV Pirveli, five cameras of Mtavari Arkhi, two cameras of Rustavi 2 and one camera of Radio Liberty were damaged. Personal photo camera of OC Media founder, who was covering the rally, and a mobile telephone of Guria News journalist, who was broadcasting live from the rally, were also damaged.
According to Kutaisi Today Editor Buba Chivadze, a guard at Kutaisi City Hall physically harmed him. The journalist was protesting against this incident at the City Hall and was forced out of the building by the police. The confrontation between the journalist and the guard escalated after Chivadze was asked for a pass to move around the City Hall building. According to Chivadze, there was no need for a pass to enter the City Hall before that.
According to a statement issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a person has been arrested for physically assaulting the co-founder of the media holding “Georgian Times” during a rally against the construction of Namakhvani HPP in Tbilisi on May 25, namely hitting a flagpole, resulting in a facial injury.
Threats and aggressive rhetoric
On May 27, according to Nazi Rekhviashvili, a Faktchek journalist, Nugzar Solomonidze, a member of the Khulo Sakrebulo from “Georgian Dream”, sent her threatening messages. A member of the ruling party threatened the journalist after Rekhviashvili posted a video of the local broadcaster with a critical caption on his social media page, where Nugzar Solomonidze referred to the chairman of the government of Adjara, Tornike Rizhvadze, among others as the “Chairman of the Supreme Council of Adjara."
On 6 March, according to a report disseminated by Mtavari Arkhi, journalist Ema Gogokhia was in Mestia, working on a story connected to a study published by Transparency International Georgia. The study was about subsidies issued within the framework of the state programme to companies linked to public officials, including a hotel owned by the sister of Mestia mayor, as well as about possible corruption. According to the journalist, while she was staying in Mestia, she received a telephone call from Mestia Mayor Kapiton Zhorzholiani, who threatened and insulted her. Later, the filming crew found their car with damaged tyres. An investigation was launched into the threats against the journalists and damaged property.
Former high-ranking official Levan Mamaladze said on the air of TV Imedi that former President Mikheil Saakashvili and former Minister of Justice Zurab Adeishvili were planning a murder of TV Pirveli journalists Nodar Meladze and Maka Chikhladze. In Nodar Meladze’s opinion, the dissemination of this kind of information by the government-affiliated media is not accidental and creates a feeling that this serves to prepare the ground for a likely revenge on the part of the government itself and subsequently accuse someone else for the possible crime. The Ministry of Internal Affairs launched an investigation of this case under the article on premediated murder of one or more persons.
TV Pirveli aired secret recordings concerning alleged crimes committed by former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s son Bera and incumbent high-ranking officials. According to programme host Nodar Meladze, since the company aired the secret recordings, the investigator journalists have been publicly threatened: “In the course of this single week, we have received threats of torture against our family members from one of the heads of Bera Ivanishvili’s security service.”
Georgian Dream leader Giorgi Volski said at a plenary session that “journalists play a special part in planning some actions of conspiracy, disinformation, and sabotage, which we witness on a daily basis”. Volski has also been insulting TV Pirveli journalists, calling them “Special squads”.
It served to encourage a smear campaign when Georgian Dream MP Tea Tsulukiani, in violation of the law, publicly announced the personal telephone number of Nika Gvaramia, head of Mtavari Arkhi TV Company which is critical of the authorities. At the parliamentary session on 2 February 2021, Tea Tsulukiani publicly announced Nika Gvaramia’s telephone number after which, according to Gvaramia, he received many calls from strangers.
Dimitri Samkharadze, Georgian Dream MP, member of the ruling party’s political council and its regional secretary, posted a homophobic status about Nika Gvaramia.
Maka Bochorishvili, chair of the Parliamentary Committee on European Integration, called the assault on journalist Vakho Sanaia “alarming and appalling” but also said that “there is no lack of hate speech on the part of journalists either”.
On 12 December last year, according to Nika Gvaramia, he was threatened with an arrest and confiscation of property.
Unsubstantiated restriction of movement or entrance into the buildings of specific institutions imposed on media representatives has become an unfortunate trend, making the performance of professional duties by journalists considerably more difficult or impossible. On 9 February, Mtavari Arkhi journalist Mariam Geguchadze was not allowed to enter the Parliament. On 11 April, representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs prevented the media from entering and working on the coverage of the protest rally in Namakhvani.
Irakli Tsulaia, author and host of Bizneskronika and Biznesi Imedze programmes on Imedi TV, said on 20 May that his business programmes had been shut down and 25 employees had been dismissed. Tsulaia noted that his family members were being threatened and did not rule out leaving the country. The journalist linked the closing of his programmes to his comment on Georgian Dream leader Irakli Kobakhidze’s statement, which had displeased ruling party leaders Mamuka Mdinaradze and Irakli Kobakhidze. Irakli Tsulaia also stated that Imedi TV Company Director Nika Laliashvili demanded that he delete his statement because Irakli Kobakhidze and Mamuka Mdinaradze were very dissatisfied.
Attempts to identify sources
The government continues its attempts to identify journalists’ sources. Specifically, the Nodar Meladze’s Shabati programme on TV Pirveli aired covert recordings concerning possible crime committed by incumbent high-ranking officials. The Prosecutor’s Office asked the court to sanction the seizure of the materials supplied by a confidential source. The City Court upheld this request, while the Court of Appeals denied the appeal, which endangered the source confidentiality guarantees envisaged by Georgian and international law.
According to TV Pirveli, the State Security Service had been planning to wiretap the channel’s investigative journalists. According to the investigative journalism feature aired by the channel, a State Security Service officer contacted a former employee of Georgian Dream’s internal monitoring service and tasked him to, among other things, conduct illegal surveillance of and record TV Pirveli journalists in exchange for appropriate financial reward.
A disinformation campaign targeting representatives of the media critical of the government continues on social networks. After secret recordings of Bera Ivanishvili were aired by TV Pirveli, the investigative journalists started being discredited on social networks. According to the Myth Detector, these pages may be controlled by groups affiliated with the government.
Some of the decisions made by the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) remain a dangerous challenge for the media environment as they show signs of restrictions against the media critical of the government. Specifically, the GNCC challenged a story aired by the Shabatis Mtavari programme on Mtavari Arkhi. The GNCC decided that the story contained obscenity. The GNCC exceeded its authority with this decision as it engaged in discussing the content, which is the prerogative of a self-regulatory body or the court. Correspondingly, the commission crudely interfered with the TV channel’s work and restricted editorial independence of a media outlet critical of the authorities. By making this decision, the GNCC has set a dangerous precedent, encouraged self-censorship in the country and gave the regulatory body an unlimited lever, which may have a severely negative impact on media freedom in Georgia