Tag Archives: press freedom

Spies, State Terrorism and Government Credibility

Last weekend I finally got the time to catch up on a number of projects that were hanging over my head, and among the things that I desperately needed to get done was to write a column for the Faster Times on the biggest drama of the summer: photographer spies and terrorist patsies.

Were several freelance photographers secretly spying for the Russian government? Did Russia plant a bomb at the U.S. embassy and other locations? We don’t know, what we do know is that these two much ballyhooed cases have provoked serious questions about the Georgian government’s credibility.

When I first contacted journalists and NGO workers in Georgia about coming to this country in the summer of 2009, most said that it was poor timing.

“Everyone’s on vacation, it’s too hot to work, so, nothing really happens in Georgia in the summer,” they said, “except the occasional war.”

Still that was enough for me to buy the one-way ticket and I am now moving into my third eventful summer in the South Caucasus.

This year, while the Western world was gearing up for barbeques and summer movie blockbusters, Tbilisi was host to a fascinating spy scandal involving three freelance Georgian photographers. Two of them worked directly for the government, including one who was the president’s personal photographer. They were accused of being paid to transmit sensitive government documents – including the minutes of ministerial meetings, blueprints of government buildings, official itineraries, etc. to another country.

Meanwhile, more details emerged about a series of mysterious explosions the previous fall that had rocked Tbilisi – actually “rocked” is a bit of an overstatement. All of the devices were small, causing hardly any damage and no one in Tbilisi seemed to pay much attention to them.

Either way, it has been an interesting, if swelteringly hot, couple of months.

On the explosions, I actually happened to be at the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi to interview the ambassador the day after the strange explosion occurred outside their walls. Although I was there to discuss IDP issues, I asked every aide and employee at the place what they thought it was all about. Most shrugged, figuring it was some local digging for copper, who accidentally struck a natural gas line, or perhaps some sort of odd practical joke. Who knows.  These things happen in Georgia (in March, a Georgian pensioner allegedly cut off the internet for a significant portion of the South Caucasus – including nearly all of Armenia – while scavenging for buried cables).

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Georgian media less free now than before Rose Revolution – Transparency International

In a report released a report Nov. 20 outlining the autonomy of Georgia’s television media, Transparency International said that Georgian television media is now less free and pluralistic than it was before Georgia’s pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili took power.

The report stated that while broadcast legislation in Georgia is up to Western standards on paper, in reality, the regulatory body that handles television media is politicized and there is no transparency in the area of media ownership. Most Georgians receive their information solely from broadcast media.

Today, Georgia’s 27 broadcast channels have nearly identical news coverage after independent stations have been forced to sell out one by one to offshore companies which have changed management and editorial structures to reflect softer, pro-government stances, the report said.

“Right now we don’t have serious competition between the broadcasters,” says Hatia Jinjikhadze, head of Open Society Georgia Foundation’s (OSGF) Media Support Program. “Sometimes you see that in the regions, one correspondent works for all three national broadcasters. Before, they would send their people and compete for the best story. What you often see now is the same footage with different voice-overs. TV news look very much alike, even the sequence of the reports.” Tamar Rukhadze, a former Rustavi 2 news director who now co-runs the independent production studio GNS shares this assessment on the national channels’ programs: “There are no exclusive stories [aired on the national channels]; a lot of stories are reported, but when they are covered, important aspects are often left out.”

Furthermore, lax labor laws allow television broadcasters to terminate journalists who do not comply with editorial controls of coverage without explanation, or obligation to grant severance pay. Furthermore, journalists who voluntarily leave one broadcaster are unlikely to find positions in another because of a countrywide (and worldwide) squeeze on the budgets of news organizations, the report said.

One exception was a protest in May 2009, when 64 journalists, producers, cameramen and other employees of Imedi TV signed a petition, protesting against the channel’s editorial policy. The petition stated that the stations news had covered current events in an inadequate and biased way. According to the statement, the stations’ management had ordered journalists to refrain from covering problems of internally displaced people (IDPs) and ordered reporters to use biased wording: IDPs should be referred to as “affected” people, the cells used by the opposition during the protests had to be described as “cages” on air. The management also did not air parts of a speech by the Patriarch in which the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church called on the Georgian army not to use violence against protestors. Furthermore, cameramen were instructed not to show pictures of large groups of people when covering opposition protests. A person who signed the petition told TI Georgia that there were also lists of experts journalists should talk to and “black lists” of people that should not beinterviewed. According to this source, Imedi’s management pressured the signatories to withdraw their support for the petition after firing two of the initiators, accusing them of sabotage. Four others journalists and producers left the station voluntarily, citing censorship as the reason for quitting –all other employees withdrew their signatures.

Despite this, according to a USAID poll, 65 percent of Georgians are convinced their television media is “totally free.” International monitoring groups, however, have not been so convinced. In worldwide ranking of press freedom Georgia was ranked 120th (out of 173) by Reporters Without Borders, and according to Freedom House, Georgia is now ranked as less free than during the Shevernadze era in every category except the legal environment.
Although, a near consensus of Georgians and expats in Tbilisi agree that many things have improved by leaps and bounds in this country since the Rose Revolution brought Saakashvili to power, this report makes a strong case that democracy and openness are not on that list.
On the political level, Freedom House calls Georgia flatly “not an electoral democracy,” and while the majority of the country seems to be duped, all of my students and Georgian acquaintances acknowledge that there is not freedom of the press in Georgia.

Georgia blocks Russian television

Georgy Gabashvili, head of the Tblissi Center for International Media, announced today that Russian channels will be blocked as of August 9th on orders from the Georgian government.

He accused Russian media channels of spreading “disinformation” about developments in South Ossetia, where Russian and Georgian troops are current clashing in open battles.

This will leave nothing but Georgian State television as all independent channels were shut down literally at gunpoint during Georgia’s fall 2007 political crisis.