Journalists are resorting to dirty tactics as the temperature rises ahead of the most unpredictable Georgian election in years.by Tinatin Tsiskaradze 10 August 2012
TBILISI | Even though parliamentary elections are nearly two months away, little else features in the Georgian media. Much of the coverage focuses on the challenge to President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party posed by the upstart Georgian Dream coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. But instead of covering the parties, political reporters are increasingly talking about what other reporters are saying, and speculating as to who is in Ivanishvili’s pocket and who is a tool of the pro-government media.
“When I’m doing interviews, they roughly interfere and ask annoying questions, insult me. They disturb me when I’m recording regular people or opposition party members. But they never interfere when I interview leaders of the ruling party or members of the government,” said Ekaterine Dugladze, a reporter with the Info 9 online news site.
“They” are small groups of people with video cameras and microphones who for several weeks have followed Dugladze and other reporters with Georgian Dream-affiliated outlets as they attempt to cover campaign events and other breaking news. Dugladze began working for Info 9 in western Georgia in June, soon after the site launched. Info 9 and its big brother, national channel TV 9, are owned by Ivanishvili’s wife, Ekaterine Khvedelidze.
Dugladze said her persecutors claim to represent an obscure, unregistered organization called Media Group.
Info 9 crews caught several of the incidents on video. In this clip, people claiming to be from Media Group are seen asking Dugladze, “Who sent you?” and “Are your questions written by Georgian Dream?” while she waits for an interviewee. After seven minutes of constant questioning, she leaves the scene without conducting her interview.
On 28 July, people from Media Group pestered Dugladze as she tried to interview participants at a Georgian Dream rally in the mountain town of Mestia. The man in the blue T-shirt asks, “Are you a journalist at all? You have no right to comment or ask anything.” Toward the middle of the clip, the man and a woman in sunglasses insult Dugladze’s appearance and accuse her of making grammatical mistakes.
The man in the T-shirt, Malkhaz Basilia, is the founder and chief editor of another Internet news outlet, Samegrelo Media Organization. A former reporter with the national public broadcaster, in 2008 he was decorated by Saakashvili after being released from two weeks in captivity in the breakaway territory of Abkhazia.
“Info 9 journalists are activists for Georgian Dream. The video broadcast on Info 9 was just a private conflict with Dugladze, that’s all. I identify Dugladze and most of the Info 9 journalists as members of the Ivanishvili sect,” Basilia said after repeated requests to comment on the video.
Vasil Dabrundashvili, a journalist with the Studio GNS production company, went to the town of Zestafoni in western Georgia to cover the Media Group incidents. Dabrundashvili said he fell victim to the same kind of harassment as Dugladze.
“After three hours of persecution” by people claiming to be from Media Group, Dabrundashvili said he made a complaint to the police, who spent two hours writing up a report, then left the scene without obtaining Dabrundashvili’s signature, thus rendering the report invalid. The national Maestro TV channel broadcast Dabrundashvili’s report on 15 July.
On 20 July, Amnesty International called on the Georgian authorities to investigate the harassment and attacks on journalists and opposition supporters. In addition to the cases of Dugladze and Dabrundashvili, Amnesty’s statement mentions Basishvili’s and Rokva’s claims of being prevented from covering news events.
Journalists linked to the opposition have also reportedly faced physical violence and threats.
The Amnesty report describes a violent scuffle on 12 July when Georgian Dream activists and journalists were assaulted by residents of a settlement for people displaced during the 2008 war with Russia in Karaleti, central Georgia. Thirteen people including 10 journalists were treated for injuries at a hospital in Gori. Three Georgian Dream activists and two other people were jailed for 15 days over the incident, the independent Civil.ge news website reported.
On 30 July the chief prosecutor’s office began an investigation into TV 9 reporter Nodar Chachua’s claim of a blackmail attempt by three men who demanded information about the channel and Georgian Dream leaders. According to Civil.ge, Chachua said he later identified one of the men as an Interior Ministry law enforcement officer.
Journalists should complain to police when they believe their right to work is being interfered with, said Natia Kapanadze, head of the legal defense center for the Georgian Young Lawyers Association.
“According to the law on freedom of speech, any individual has a right to ask any questions as long as this does not interfere with or insult another person,” Kapanadze said.
Still, despite the investigation into the alleged blackmail attempt against Chachua, other appeals to the police have not been encouraging. In addition to Dabrundashvili’s abortive attempt to file a complaint, Dugladze told Amnesty International that filing complaints with the local prosecutor and police had not stopped the harassment. Indeed, one incident took place literally on the doorstep of a local police station.
Another battle of reporters’ wills was captured in a video shot 9 July in the Guria region when a team from Info 9 arrived to investigate reports of bad drinking water in a village, only to have a confrontation with Sopho Kantaria of Real TV, a station generally considered to be friendly toward the government. Kantaria first asks the Info 9 cameraman to show his press pass, then questions Info 9 reporter Baia Gugeshashvili: “Whose media are you, who finances you?”, “Why do you film destroyed buildings?”, and says, “You’re forcing people to talk about problems.”
In the video Kantaria wears a Real TV press pass and carries a microphone with the station’s logo. However, on 9 August a news producer at Real TV, Sopho Khutsishvili, denied that reporters from the station had interfered with the work of Info 9’s journalists.
A new incident may indicate that some journalists have had enough of such behavior. A video posted on YouTube 7 August by a user called malxaz basilaia shows a confrontation between Maestro reporter Nana Pazhava and an unidentified news crew who try to film Pazhava conducting an interview. Pazhava expostulates with the unseen rivals, then shouts “Stop filming me! You aren’t listening to me!” and finally hits their camera repeatedly with her microphone.
Georgian police seized a large shipment of satellite dishes ordered by Maestro in late July as part of an investigation into Ivanishvili’s campaign finances. Prosecutors say Ivanishvili planned to distribute the dishes to voters in a violation of political funding rules. On 25 July Ivanishvili paid about half of a $90 million fine a court imposed on him for the violations.
The steady diet of stories about journalists flinging insults at each other is getting too much for some Georgians.
“I get lost whenever I see these videos showing journalists roughly questioning each other, fighting,” Tbilisi resident Shorena Lomadze said.
Lomadze said she gets most of her news on the Internet. “I just want fair news and not opinion, positional or oppositional, from journalists.”
A middle-aged interrupted with, “I don’t trust journalists any more. That’s it, with me it’s all over. Journalism used to be the most popular profession in Georgia years ago, because it could be trusted.”