Media — Target of Violence and Illegal Surveillance: Assessment of the pre-election media environment
Transparency International Georgia publishes an annual assessment of the media environment ahead of the elections, covering the period from the 2020 Parliamentary Elections to the 2021 Local Self-Government Elections. The cases provided in the report demonstrate some of the main trends and challenges that the Georgian media is facing today.
- The situation regarding the media environment has reached a critical level in the country. In recent years, journalists’ professional activities have become life-threatening and dangerous, especially for critical media representatives. Dozens of attacks or threats against the media were reported during the reporting period. According to public disseminated sources, 93 cases of violence against at least 23 media representatives have been reported since the parliamentary elections. On July 5-6, 2021 alone, 53 members of the media were injured in an attack by homophobic and violent groups.
- There is a lack of adequate government response to violations of journalists’ rights. As an example, despite the publicly available evidence or the request from the Public Defender, no charges have yet been filed against the organizers of the attack on journalists on July 5-6, 2021.
- There was a case of dismissal of a journalist due to allegedly dissenting opinions, as well as discriminatory treatment of a journalist by the management, during the monitoring period. Several journalists resigned due to unacceptable editorial policies at their media outlets.
- The aggressive and threatening rhetoric of the ruling party members has become a daily occurrence, which further encourages violence against the media and exacerbates the already challenging and polarized environment in the country. For a while, the government stopped boycotting the critical media, but they quickly resumed the boycott and no longer participates in their political programs.
- There is an ongoing problem of illegal wiretapping in the country, including against critical media journalists which has a massive character. Documents allegedly containing covert wiretaps by the State Security Service have been released to the public. According to the public information, as well as the data provided by journalists and media companies, at least 55 journalists from 10 media outlets confirmed that the information contained in the State Security Service files was genuine and that similar content communications had taken place.
- Politically motivated cases against critical media continue, including attempts to put pressure on media outlet owners, management, or family members.
- There is an ongoing disinformation campaign on social networks aimed at discrediting political opponents, civil sector, and journalists by manipulating public opinion.
Illegal wiretapping of journalists on a massive scale
Illegal wiretapping is one of the key problems identified during the pre-election period, including the fact that media representatives were tapped in numerous instances. On September 13, 2021, the files containing the contents of the covert wiretaps allegedly carried out by the State Security Service were released to the public. Journalists were among those who publicly confirmed that the documents reflected their conversations. Alleged illegal wiretapping is carried out while using the service of mobile operators, as well as various popular applications, including Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp. However, in one case, a journalist claims that the conversation contained in the files was recorded at one of the activist’s flat. According to the public information, as well as the data provided by journalists and media companies, at least 55 journalists from 10 media outlets confirmed that the information contained in the State Security Service files was genuine and that similar content communications had taken place.
Nestan (Nene) Dalakishvili;
International organization “Reporters Without Borders” described the illegal surveillance of journalists "very disturbing" and called on the authorities to conduct a transparent and independent investigation.
Similar files were released by Mtavari Arkhi on August 2, in which the journalists were also mentioned. Journalists of Radio Tavisupleba and Formula One Giorgi Mgeladze and Nino Gelashvili confirmed that the files reflected their conversation. The Public Defender demanded an investigation and punishment for those involved in the illegal surveillance.
Violence against media representatives
Physical security for journalists in Georgia, including while on duty, has become extremely dangerous. Particular risk is posed to critical media representatives, which is exacerbated by aggressive rhetoric from the government and inadequate investigations of violent incidents.
July 5-6 events
As a result of violent and homophobic attacks on journalists, 53 journalists from 16 media outlet were injured during the events of July 5 – 6, some of whom needed medical assistance. The equipment of various media outlets was damaged.
On July 5, LGBTQ+ community planned to conduct a March for Dignity on Rustaveli Avenue organized by Tbilisi Pride. Participants of the march as well as the civil society and diplomatic corps urged the authorities several times to ensure the protection of the rights of the participants as well as peaceful conduction of the march. Prior to the event, the Prime Minister of Georgia, Irakli Gharibashvili, stated that he considered the holding of the march inappropriate. This statement was practically an encouragement to the attackers and “instructed” the law enforcement agencies not to do anything about it. Violent groups occupied Rustaveli Avenue in the morning and were particularly aggressive and violent towards journalists. After beating the journalists and raiding Tbilisi Pride office, the organizers announced that the March for Dignity was cancelled, but the people gathered on Rustaveli did not disperse and continued the targeted persecution of the journalists. Journalists highlight the inadequate response of the police during the violence against them by the protesters.
The pro-Russian TV station Alt-Info, which disseminates anti-Western propagandistic messages, was very aggressive and spread violent proclamations against Tbilisi Pride. Zurab Makharadze, the host of Alt-Info and one of the founders of Alternative for Georgia, openly stated a few weeks before that he would violently oppose the March for Dignity if necessary: "They call us violent and yes, I am violent. I can and I am going to defend my values, including by force." On July 16, Alt-Info members, along with other organizers of the violent rally (Konstantine Morgoshia, Ramaz Gagnidze, Alexander and Guram Palavandishvili, etc.), were taken to the police station for questioning, but were soon released. Zura Makharadze, one of the leaders of the group, was arrested by the police a few days earlier for violent actions at the opening ceremony of Pride Week, but was released at that time as well.
On September 6, the Public Defender called for the prosecutor's office with a request to prosecute Zurab Makharadze for organizing the mass violence and publicly inciting violence, however the law enforcement officials say that there is insufficient evidence in the case to charge Makharadze.
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 27 people were arrested on July 5 on charges of threatening the journalists’ professional activities, illegal interference, gang violence and threats of violence. As of yet, neither the leaders nor organizers of group violence, nor those who urged the crowd to resort to violence, have been arrested.
On July 6, a silent protest was held in front of the Parliament building. Violent groups again gathered near Kashueti Church, trying to intrude on peaceful protesters and throwing various items at them. Two rally participants were cordoned off by police. Members of the violent groups again attacked journalists on this day. Police have detained more than 100 people on administrative charges, and one person has been charged with assaulting PalitraNews operator. Most of the administrative detainees were released under written pledge..
Lekso Lashkarava’s death
Lekso Lashkarava, the cameraman of TV Pirveli, was found dead in his home on July 11. As a result of an attack by violent groups on July 5, Lashkarava was severely beaten in the office of the Shame Movement – In addition to a concussion, he had broken facial bones and underwent surgery.
The events sparked a strong reaction from journalists and human rights activists. Numerous protests and performances were held. Participants demanded identification of the perpetrators, proper punishment and the resignation of the Prime Minister. The Georgian government has been criticized by the local and international organizations.
The law enforcement agencies' statements and actions during the investigation into the death of Lekso Lashkarava were not intended to determine the real cause, but rather to discredit the journalist. The Ministry of Internal Affairs has released an interim report stating that drugs were found in the deceased's body and that “an overdose of these drugs likely caused his death.” On September 24, the State Inspector's Office found that the Ministry of Internal Affairs had violated the Law on Personal Data Protection by publishing videos of Lekso Lashkarava's movement and imposed a fine of GEL 2,000 on the Ministry. State Inspectors concluded that the release of video footage of the operator's movements had no specific and clearly stated legal purpose.
Vakho Sanaia’s case
A court ruled on August 25 that the attackers of Formula TV host Vakho Sanaia would be released. The court found them guilty and sentenced them to prison with a six-month sentence as the main punishment. All three attackers were in pre-trial detention for 6 months, which is why they were released on the same day.
On the evening of February 25, 2021, three people attacked Vakho Sanaia, the host of Formula TV. At that time, the journalist was accompanied by his wife and a child.
There was no proper enforcement of justice in the judgment issued by the court. This decision may encourage violence against the representatives of critical media outlets, which further aggravates the pre-election media environment in the face of ineffective government response to such cases. The main purpose of the sentence is to prevent a new crime, re-socialize the offender and restore justice. The punishment used by the court failed to meet these goals as it creates a feeling of impunity and further encourages violence against media representatives.
Physical violence against journalists
Along with the increase in aggression against journalists, the number of cases where journalists are physically assaulted when on duty has also increased, which is aggravated by the government rhetoric and improper investigation.
On September 28, the cameraman and journalist of Mtavari Arkhi Emma Gogokhia was obstructed in filming by the supporters of the Georgian Dream and physically and verbally abused.
On September 19, TV Pirveli crew was prevented from working and the journalist Khvicha Mamuladze was forced to leave the place.
On September 15, Levan Ablotia, the operator of Mtavari Arkhi, was injured in the Georgian Dream office in Kareli. According to him, he fell from the stairs as a result of a confrontation in the office. The incident is being investigated under Article 124 of the Criminal Code (less severe or severe damage to health through negligence).
On September 7 the journalists were hit by a car, during which the operator of TV Pirveli sustained a leg injury, and the equipment was damaged. The prosecutor's office charged the person with violence, damage to someone else's property, and interference with the journalist's professional activities.
On August 26, Kutaisi City Hall employee verbally and physically assaulted the journalists of Radio Old Town and Mega TV. The story was about an alleged illegal construction case.
A TV Pirveli journalist was attacked with stones while filming in Ponichala on July 3. On June 30, the journalists were attacked in Tsalka, where a journalist and a cameraman were physically assaulted and verbally abused. One person was detained by the law enforcement agencies. An investigation is underway into allegations of violence and unlawful interference with a journalist's professional activities. The detainee was later released on bail.
According to a statement issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a person was arrested for physically assaulting a co-founder of the media holding Georgian Times during a rally on May 25 in Tbilisi against the construction of Namakhvani. In particular, he hit the handle of the flag, causing facial injuries.
According to the Public Broadcaster, on May 17 their crew was physically assaulted during a confrontation in Dmanisi. The broadcaster appealed to all relevant agencies to identify the perpetrators and demanded their punishment in accordance with the law.
Two incidents occurred on April 9 according to Formula TV. At three in the morning, during the curfew, the TV driver’s car with the logo of the broadcaster was damaged. The car windows were broken, however nothing was stolen. In the second case, the driver of Formula TV was beaten, who suffered physical injuries. Those incidents were linked to their critical editorial policy, according to Formula TV.
As reported by Buba Chivadze, the editor of Kutaisi Today, he was physically assaulted at the City Hall on April 5 by the security guards, and the police then forced him to leave.
While covering the strike, the journalist of Radio Marneuli - Vladimer Chkhitunidze's phone was confiscated, and he was prohibited from taking any footage. The incident which took place on March 3 is being investigated.
On February 16, drung persons attacked the crew of Media Holding Kvira. An investigation on interference in journalistic activities has commenced.
On January 16, during the coverage of the rally, the law enforcers prevented on.ge journalist Khatia Ghoghoberidze from performing her professional duties.
On November 8, 2020, during the dispersal of the rally near the Central Election Commission building by police, the rights of media representatives were grossly violated, including several journalists sustained physical injuries.
Aggressive rhetoric, threats and insults
There is an increasing trend of aggressive rhetoric, threats, and insults directed at journalists, including, unfortunately, from government officials. This deepens polarization and encourages violence against journalists.
Aggressive rhetoric, threats and insults from government officials
The aggressive rhetoric of the Georgian Dream representatives intensified after the events of July 5-6. On September 1, the Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili accused the opposition media of fighting against the people. On July 23, Irakli Gharibashvili called Formula TV journalist a "party activist" and an "abuser" while answering the question of punishing the organizers of mass violence against the media and holding the government accountable. Irakli Gharibashvili, speaking about the ongoing events and the protest of journalists on July 17, said that it was immoral to speculate on the death of a colleague and that Saakashvili and his team were behind it.
On July 23, Tea Tsulukiani, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Culture, Sports and Youth Affairs, confiscated a microphone from Emma Gogokhia, a journalist of Mtavari Arkhi, and have not returned it back until now. The Prosecutor’s office does not make an official explanation on whether an investigation has been launched.
On September 14, the chairman of the ruling party, Irakli Kobakhidze, called the director of Mtavari Arkhi and critical TV anchors "perverts." Irakli Kobakhidze told reporters on July 15 that black money existed at TV Pirveli, Mtavari Arkhi, and Formula, and that this matter “should be investigated.”
FactCheck journalist Nazi Rekhviashvili reported on May 27, that Khulo City Council member Nugzar Solomonidze from Georgian Dream had sent threatening messages to her. A member of the ruling party threatened the journalist after Rekhviashvili posted a video of the local broadcaster with a critical caption on her social media page, where Nugzar Solomonidze referred to the Chairman of the Adjara government, Tornike Rizhvadze, as "the Chairman of the Supreme Council of Adjara."
On March 6, according to Mtavari Arkhi, journalist Emma Gogokhia visited Mestia to cover Transparency International-Georgia’s report. The report discusses subsidizing companies owned by public officials from the state program, including a hotel owned by the sister of the Mayor of Mestia, and possible corruption cases. According to the journalist, the Mayor of Mestia - Kapiton Zhorzholiani called her, threatened and verbally abused her. Later, the crew discovered that the tires of the car were damaged. An investigation has been launched into threats against the journalist and damage of property.
On February 25, the chair of the European Integration Committee at the Parliament, Maka Botchorishvili, described the attack on journalist Vakho Sanaia 25 as "disturbing and shocking," but also noted that "hate speech from journalists is not rare."
On February 16, Georgian Dream leader Giorgi Volski stated in a plenary session that "journalists are taking part in planning some kind of conspiracy, disinformation, sabotage, which we are witnessing on a daily basis." Volski also insults the journalists of TV Pirveli and calls them “Zonders.”
Tea Tsulukiani, one of the leaders of Georgian Dream, instigated the negative campaign by illegally publishing the personal mobile number of Nika Gvaramia, who is the head of the critical media outlet - Mtavari Arkhi. In the parliamentary session on February 2, 2021, Tea Tsulukiani publicly announced Nika Gvaramia's mobile number, after which Gvaramia reported receiving many unknown calls. On the same day, Dimitri Samkharadze, a Georgian Dream MP and the member of the ruling party's political council and regional secretary, posted a homophobic status on Nika Gvaramia.
Media representatives are frequently restricted from moving or entering the premises of certain agencies, which significantly complicates or prevents them from carrying out their professional tasks. On February 9, Mariam Geguchadze, a journalist at Mtavari Arkhi, was not allowed to enter the Parliament building. A journalist from Netgazeti and a cameraman from Radio Liberty were not allowed to attend the briefing on March 24 at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Youth Affairs. On April 11, representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs did not allow the media to enter and cover the ongoing rally in Namakhvani.
Often, citizens encouraged by government inaction or aggressive rhetoric openly threaten and insult journalists.
Nika Gvaramia, the Director of Mtavari Arkhi, said that members of a violent group were threatening to kill him after Altinfo's Facebook page was blocked.
On July 27, while recording an interview, a journalist of Mtavari Arkhi was poured with the water from the building. The equipment of First Channel was damaged in the Trinity Cathedral yard on August 28.
Levan Vasadze, an ultranationalist businessman with close ties to Russia, has traditionally been aggressive towards journalists, defending the clergy in the Ninotsminda boarding school scandal and stated on June 7 that journalists and NGO members should be punished for “insulting Georgian traditions."
On March 11, former high-ranking official Levan Mamaladze told Imedi TV that former President Mikheil Saakashvili and former Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili were planning to assassinate TV Pirveli journalists Nodar Meladze and Maka Chikhladze. Nodar Meladze believes that the spread of such information by the government-affiliated media is not accidental, and he believes that the government is setting the stage for possible revenge, in order to then blame others for possible crimes. The Ministry of Internal Affairs has launched an investigation into the case under the article of premeditated murder of two or more persons.
TV Pirveli broadcasted secret recordings on March 6 regarding the possible crimes of former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's son - Bera, and current high-ranking officials. Nodar Meladze, the host of the program, says that after the publication of secret recordings by TV Pirveli, investigative journalists were publicly threatened: "During the week, we have received threats from one of the heads of Bera Ivanishvili's security service regarding the torture of our family members."
Mtavari Arkhi founder Nika Gvaramia said on December 12 last year that he had been threatened with arrest and confiscation of property.
Aggression and violence by clergy against journalists
Some priests are also involved in encouraging aggression against journalists. According to IFact, 26 priests participated in a violent and homophobic rally on July 5th, including those who incited the crowd to violence. The Public Defender had similarly requested that criminal proceedings be initiated against Archpriest Spiridon Tskipurishvili for organizing group violence and publicly calling for violent actions. Law enforcement officials say there is not enough evidence in the case to charge Tskipurishvili. Earlier, the Patriarchate explained that the priest who made violent proclamations at the rally had received a "severe reprimand."
On July 22, the Patriarchate issued a statement against media outlets. They accused Mtavari Arkhi, TV Pirveli and Formula of discrediting them and called on the clergy not to communicate with them.
On August 28, 2021, one of the monks insulted Formula journalist. According to Formula, she was filming the construction near the monastery.
According to Mtavari Arkhi, on May 7 Irakli Vachiberidze, a journalist of the broadcaster, was verbally and physically assaulted by the Metropolitan of Vani and Baghdadi, while the journalist was performing his professional duties.
On May 4, clergymen verbally abused, physically assaulted, and damaged the equipment of Mtavari Arkhi crew on the territory of Davit-Gareji Monastery Complex. Later, after leaving the scene of the incident, they were confronted by local residents in the village Udabno. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the investigation was launched under the article of violence.
During the coverage of the confrontation between the clergy in the Chkondidi Diocese, the media representatives became the objects of aggression. Journalists had to cover the events amid violence, threats and obstruction. On March 8, while covering a confrontation between the parties, around 10 people, including the representatives of media outlets, fell from a balcony and were injured.
Government boycott of critical media outlets
As a protest, government representatives refused to appear on specific media outlets' TV shows. Journalists claimed that this hindered their professional activities. Georgian Dream's Executive Secretary Mamuka Mdinaradze announced on June 1 that they would no longer boycott the broadcasts of Mtavari Arkhi and TV Pirveli in a certain format, but they would still boycott Formula. Following the events of July 5-6, after the protests by journalists to properly investigate attacks on media representatives and the death of Lekso Lashkarava, the government resumed its boycott of critical media, which continued during the pre-election period as well.
On July 17, the Prime Minister did not invite journalists from Mtavari Arkhi, TV Pirveli and Formula to a public event, accusing them of discrediting the government and "crossing all red lines."
Disinformation campaign against journalists
The online disinformation campaign against journalists continues. During the pre-election period, these pages became especially active. Some of them discredit the opposition along with journalists, although there are specific Facebook pages created only for journalists. They act in an organized manner through disseminating various caricatures or by spreading false information. The targets of these anonymous campaigns are not only journalists, but also individual media outlets and their heads.
It is noteworthy that after Lekso Lashkarava's death, he was discredited by spreading information about his personal life or false information about him on a variety of social media pages orchestrated by the government.
The hate speech banners that read "No to Nazis! No to evil! No to betrayal!" appeared again in the capital and then in other cities before the local self-governance elections on September 18. The banners depict critical media representatives as well as leaders of opposition parties, including Nika Gvaramia, the Director of Mtavari Arkhil, and Nodar Meladze, the Chief Producer of TV Pirveli. Background blood stains are visible on the banners.
Politically motivated cases against critical media outlets
Giorgi Rurua, one of Mtavari Arkhi's shareholders and donors, was released from prison on April 27. Rurua's case has been assessed as politically motivated by various independent parties. A trial is ongoing against Nika Gvaramia, the Director of Mtavari Arkhi and co-founder. Based on the assessment of the civil sector and the Public Defender, Nika Gvaramia's criminal responsibility cannot be established.
Avtandil Tsereteli, the father of TV Pirveli's founder, was charged with money laundering in 2019. Civil society representatives share the concerns of the owner Vakhtang Tsereteli and the journalists, that the ongoing investigation is aimed at restricting critical speech. The allegations made against Avtandil Tsereteli were evaluated by an independent international expert, who provided important arguments on the groundlessness of the accusations.
On September 7, before the elections, the Supreme Court convicted Formula TV owner Davit Kezerashvili of five years in prison. Former Prosecutor General and former attorney for Bidzina Ivanishvili, Judge Shalva Tadumadze reviewed the case. In 2017, the Court of Appeals acquitted the case, and the prosecution appealed to the Supreme Court. Tadumadze was the Prosecutor General at that time. Representatives of the media outlet relate the resumption of the proceedings to the critical editorial policy of the broadcaster.
Attempt to identify the source
Government officials continue to identify the source of the journalists. In particular, on March 6, secret recordings about possible crimes of high-ranking officials were broadcasted on TV Pirveli during "Nodar Meladze's Saturday". On March 9, the prosecutor's office requested from the court the right to access materials provided by a confidential source. The motion was granted by the City Court and upheld by the Court of Appeals, which jeopardized the confidentiality of the source under Georgian and international law.
Journalists’ protest against own media outlets
In August 2021, Guram Rogava and Teona Tskhomelidze left Rustavi 2. They stated that the change in the channel's editorial policy was the main reason.
Irakli Absandze, the host, was fired from the Public Broadcaster on August 11. According to NGOs, the reason for his dismissal may have been the journalist's critical statements and actions against the government and the management of the television.
On March 16, the Public Defender of Georgia established a discrimination against TV Imedi over the dissenting opinion of journalist Ana Tskhovrebova. As a result of Anna's critical opinions, the journalist was removed from her position as a presenter.
In July 2021, Vako Avaliani, the Executive Director of the pro-government channel Maestro TV, resigned. It was due to the inadmissibility of the editorial changes made on the channel. Vako Avaliani soon became one of the Directors of the holding created by Rustavi 2 and Prime Time in March 2021.
On May 20, Irakli Tsulaia, the author and the host of Imedi TV programs - Business Chronicle and Business Imedi, stated that his shows were terminated and 25 employees were fired as a result. Tsulaia noted that his family members were being intimidated. He even considered leaving the country. The journalist linked the termination of the programs to his response to the statement of Irakli Kobakhidze, the leader of Georgian Dream, which, according to him, was followed by the dissatisfaction of the leaders of the ruling party Mamuka Mdinaradze and Irakli Kobakhidze. Irakli Tsulaia also stated that Nika Laliashvili, the Director of Imedi TV, asked him to delete the post published in his social network because Irakli Kobakhidze and Mamuka Mdinaradze were very dissatisfied.
 Tabula, On.ge, Netgazeti, TV Pirveli, Kavkasia, Publika, Radio Tavisupleba, Voice of America, Mtavari Arkhi, formula.
 This study covers the period from October 31, 2020 Parliamentary Elections to the 2021 local Self-Governance Elections and the examples of violence against the media are incomplete and describe only the main trends and challenges that the Georgian media is facing today.
 Radio Tavisupleba, Rustavi 2, TV Pirveli, On.ge, Formula TV, Mtavari Arkhi, Tabula, Netgazeti, Public Broadcaster, Adjara Public Broadcaster, Palitranews, Gurianews, Interpressnews, TV Imedi, NewPost, CNews.
 This study covers the period from October 31, 2020 Parliamentary Elections to the 2021 local Self-Governance Elections and the examples of threats, insults and aggressive rhetoric are incomplete and describe only the main trends and challenges that the Georgian media is facing today.