Child and Staunch Enemy of Media – Chronicles of Undeclared Cold War and Hot Raider ConquersPosted: 2011/12/05 | |
It may be argued that 2003 Georgian Rose Revolution was instigated by the media. And there is an irony in that – it is Saakashvili and his United National Movement that have become most ardent enemies of free media from their first days in power.
He started to attack the media as soon as he was elected as a president of Georgia. As early as in 2004 several newspapers and TV companies have disappeared from the Georgian media space – TV “Iberia,” the newspapers “Akhali Epoka”, “Dilis Gazeti”, “Mtavari Gazeti”, journal “Omega”, the information agency “Inter-Press”; the leading TV-analytical programs and talk-shows were closed – “Ghamis Courier” (Night Courier), “Ghamis Mzera”(Night View), “Ra Khdeba”(What’s Up?), “Taimauti”(Time Out), “Tsaitnoti” (Time Shortage) and, most importantly – “60 Tsuti” (analogue of “60 Minutes”), weekly investigative journalistic program with extremely high ratings during Shevardnadze times, which caused an end of careers for quite a few officials of that time. Some of the reports that were deemed undesirable by the government officials subsequently have been banned from airing. The journalists loyal to the government were promoted and paid off while others became marginalized and were deprived of means of income.
In 2005 the information programs of TV channel “Mze”(Sun) were closed as a result of pressure from the government on the grounds (or – more correctly – speculation, as there was no study performed) that a strictly entertainment channel was needed, and that the population did not want any extra information. At the same time a popular journalist and former unofficial PR manager of Saakashvili, author of the popular TV show “Dardubala” and director of TV channel “202” was arrested on charges of extorting money from MP Bekauri, while his channel, that was increasingly becoming a critic of the government’s actions, was closed as well.
Below is statement made by Georgian journalists on July 8, 2005 as a response to harsh crackdown of peaceful demonstration at a Rustaveli avenue where some journalists have been physically abused:
“We, the journalists working in Georgia, openly declare that the government tries to: intervene and control our activities; ban undesirable information from reaching TV airtime or newspaper pages; create problems in collecting information and spreading it further; carry out punitive measures against the media whose news, analytical programs or talk – shows it dislikes. The pressure on media and efforts to interfere in their activities in today’s Georgia cannot be deemed as a good indicator of development for a nascent democracy. Therefore we urge the Government to refrain from interfering into the activities of independent media and from the irresponsible statements that are made by the ruling party’s leadership against us.”
On December 1, 2005, on the live air of local TV Company “Rioni”, Akaki Bobokhidze, who at that time was the governor of Imereti region, beat the journalist Irakli Imnaishvili, whose nose was broken and he also sustained a brain concussion. Instead of barring Bobokhidze, who resigned from the position of governor, from political activity, the president promoted him in the next few weeks to the position of Commander of National Guard (!). And the talented young journalist, apparently as a result of pressure on him, was forced to leave Georgia and is currently working in England.
In December 2005, the president, irritated by the increased criticism in the newspapers towards him, said that he was not reading the Georgian press. He also gave informal verbal instructions to governmental organizations to cease subscription for Georgian newspapers and magazines. This grave impact of the financial pressure was felt painfully by Georgian newspapers in 2006 when the majority of them had their circulation decreased by 2,000-3,000.
In 2006 the right to tender announcement placements was given to the most prominent opposition newspaper (during Shevardnadze times) – “24 hours”, which has become drastically pro-governmental since 2004. Rating of this newspaper is extremely low for the last 3-4 years and the only significant source of its income is that dotation from tender announcements.
On July 7, 2006 the author and the anchor of “Tavisupali Tema”(Free Theme) – a top rated program on television station“Rustavi-2” – Eka Khoperia, who also served as a head of the news service of the same channel, while discussing on live TV the abduction, sadistic torture and murder of the young banker Sandro Girgvliani by the law enforcement officials, declared that she has received instructions regarding what to say and what not from one of the leaders of the ruling party – Giga Bokeria (currently the Secretary of Security Council). The journalist said that such behavior become systematic but that she was not going to succumb to pressure and has resigned in live show in protest. No investigation has been initiated regarding her claims.
Studio “Monitori” shot a sharp and interesting film (author – Nino Zuriashvili) about the dire fate of Georgian televisions (http://www.ijp.ge/video_blank.php?vid=38). This documentary shows that in 2003 there were 12 private TV stations in Georgia, 4 of which were broadcasting throughout Georgia and at least half of which were known for a high degree of independence from the government. In 4 years from the Rose Revolution eleven of those initial 12 (“Rustavi 2”, “Iberia”, “Channel 9”, “202”, “Evrika”, etc. virtually everyone, except for the TV “Kavkasia”) have changed their owners or have their license terminated. The study financed by the EU and the “Transparency International – Georgia” showed that the ownership issue is closely related with aspects of government control of televisions as well as degree of trust in TV stations. (http://www.epfound.ge/files/geo_media_research_report_ge.pdf; http://irdb.wordpress.com/2009/11/24/ http://www.humanrights.ge/index.php?a=article&id=3795 )
Owners of more than 40 TV channels currently operating in Georgia, often are – in spite of the law prohibiting it, or at least recently were the persons actively involved in Government, or their family members, (e.g. Irakli Chikovani, Director of Telecommunications Regulation Commission; director of Rustavi2 TV, Nodar Charkhalashvili, husband of the member of the same Commission Sophia Britanchuk; George Arveladze, head of the Chancellery of the President, currently director general of company running Imedi TV ), as well as municipalities (e.g. of Akhmeta) or members of the municipalities. It has been alleged that the government and the people close to them and/or relatives and/or neighbors took control (often in precarious situation) of large or even controlling stake in television channels.
The same company “Degson Limited”, which is offshore registered and of a rather obscure origin, together with the holding “Industrial Group”, owns the nation-wide broadcasting companies “Rustavi 2″ and “Mze”. Another mysterious organization “Denial Union” owns 100% of TV “Sakartvelo” (channel associated with the Ministry of Defense) and 51% of TV “Evrika”. 100% of TV Company “Imedi”’s shares are owned by “Georgian Media Production Group”. The majority of these companies are registered in offshore zones and despite of recent special legislative changes for national broadcasting companies prohibiting them to be registered in such zones and requiring them to make information on their shareholder publicly available, the government is in no hurry to enforce these rules.
Since 2004 the management of Public Broadcaster (former TV 1 Channel) has been appointed by the government and became more and more odious and consisted of controlled individuals. Hence the channel increasingly became an executioner of Saakashvili’s wishes and along with Rustavi2 and Imedi TVs – a major tool of disinformation for the Georgian society.
During the years 2006-07 Minister of Interiors and Security Vano Merabishvili and other high-ranking officials from ruling party managed to subvert several media sources. As a result the media resource either where foreclosed or became loudmouth, unethical and less objective. This may be easily characterized as “lightly criticize the government and wallow the opposition in dirt”. Others, like Rustavi2 show such flattering interviews and footages of Merabishvili and Tbilisi mayor Ugulava, that most of the people call them Brezhnev-media.
On the 7th November of 2007 the last independent nation-wide television “Imedi” was destroyed by the riot police by means of invasion and unprecedented crackdown. The decree about the closure of Imedi TV was signed afterwards and it was explained, that Government officials simply couldn’t bring the order timely as the working hours were over (!)
2008 TV channel “Imedi” after a night of pressure and fraudulent arrangement has been transferred to Joseph Kay, distant relative of Badri Patarkatsishvili (former owner of the channel) and later to ostensibly Arabic “Rakeen Georgia Holdings”, who’s “representative” Mark Monem, has disappeared after the presentation, so that no one could trace him thereafter. Later, in 2009, the head of Arab Company “RAK” said that TV company “Imedi” has never been under their possession and that the company “Rakeen Georgia Holding” does not belong to them. Thus he indirectly confirmed that the “Imedi” TV actually belonged to the government that created similarly named fake daughter company that was actually run by the government controlled individuals. This is further demonstrated by the fact that in 2008 the TV company’s payroll where provided by the Tbilisi municipality. In 2011 Patarkatsishvili’s family officially gave up their rights on “Imedi” channel to Georgian government in exchange for other assets appropriated from late Badri Patarkatsishvili, ending nearly 3 year International allegations. This further proves that both Joseph Kay and “Arabs” where used by Georgian government as a smoke-screen.
In the same 2008 the three national scale TV channels: “National Broadcaster”(TV1), “Rustavi-2” and “Imedi” gradually fell under increasing state censorship. Various leaders of the ruling party – Gigi Ugulava, Giga Bokeria, Goka Gabashvili, George Arveladze – have been acting as censors of these channels at different times.
2010 saw a decision of the Tbilisi Municipality to prohibit the sale of newspapers and books in city streets (even from the racks) as it was labeled as a variety of outdoor trade which is banned. Several hundred people were left unemployed in the city.
In the same year after the elimination of book traders from the streets, 250 Press booths have been installed in Tbilisi by the order of the Mayor Gigi Ugulava. These Press booths, ostensibly owned by the company from Dubai, but in reality under control of David Kezerashvili, ex Minister of Defense, and then owner of Georgian Lottery Company, soon started to sell of Georgian Lottery tickets and became less dependent on the sales of the journals and newspapers. Today these booths are still selling the newspapers and magazines, but it constitutes only a small part of their income. Therefore, if the need arises for the government (who runs these booths through the people affiliated with the government) to ban a paper media or any specific newspaper, it can be implemented without delay.
During 2010-2011 the government began the privatization process of the “Georgian Post” and today it is a private company which is headed by the former Finance Minister Kakha Baindurashvili. It is possible that along with other objectives the company may be utilized for controlling the circulation of newspapers and magazines. A private company one day may decide to stop circulation of the paper media, or do it more subtly, e.g. by setting such a tariff on the distribution that would double the price of a newspaper being delivered at home. While newspapers are mainly sold in booths, and these are sufficiently abundant, subscription should not pose big problems, but the pressure on booths is currently being hardened.
From the beginning of 2011, following the obtainment of satellite broadcasting license by TV company “Maestro” after almost a year of fighting, cable televisions all over the regions of Georgia refused (without any grounds) to relay signal of TV “Maestro”. This resulted in limiting of transmission of TV signal of “Maestro” in Telavi, Rustavi, Akhmeta and many other cities. Often, the cable companies’ employees have privately confessed that they had received this kind of instruction from government circles. If we take into account that both of the only duopolistic companies that combine fiber-optic network and cable television in Georgia – “Silknet” and “Caucasus Online”, stubbornly refuse to include the programs of TV Company “Maestro” in their net, it becomes obvious that as soon as Tbilisi residents choose one of those providers, charmed by the dumping prices of combined package of high-speed Internet and television, they will have to live without the “Maestro”. This will leave the population with only source of receiving TV “Maestro” – through the satellite dishes. Due to the high cost of satellite transmission for the TV companies, the continuity of the signal transmission through the satellite won’t be guaranteed. Also, after the dodgy tender on Tbilisi’s TV tower a dubious owner emerged as a winner. They might decide one day (e.g. on the Election Day) that the tower has some unexpected technical “problems” and need to take some of the TV signals off the air.
On the night of May 26, 2011 the government has cracked down with unprecedented brutality on unauthorized, but still a peaceful rally on Rustaveli Avenue. Peaceful demonstrators and policeman have died during this crackdown and the death of the policeman was blamed on the car convoy of opposition leader Nino Burjanadze, but it could not be confirmed by the police investigation and by National Forensic Bureau. During the crackdown dozens of journalists were physically and morally abused by patrol and riot police. Some have been unlawfully detained and afterwards beaten at police stations, their equipment and filmed materials were confiscated. Even today the investigation is not over.
From June 2011 the tax authorities began an infinite (still unfinished, just suspended) inspection of the six independent companies belonging to media holding “Palitra”. Although the tax police wished to shut down the holding, violations could not be found. It is possible that the holding has survived only thanks to the unprecedented solidarity of the community, journalists and foreign diplomats (especially – the US Embassy) have shown. 4 days before the officially allowed deadline of the examination, it was suspended, but may resume at any time. It hangs over the “Palitra” holding as Sword of Damocles in order to try to make them obedient, because it was this media that released print and video materials of the bloody crackdown on protesters on May 26.
On July 7, 2011 the so-called “Spy photographers” case commenced. 4 photographer have been arrested (including the President’s personal photographer), who have photographed and distributed a brutal crackdown on demonstrators on May 26. Wife of one of the photographers – also a photographer, was detained as well. She was soon tried and released for a GEL 10,000 bail, while her husband confessed on spying after a half an hour of her release. Due to the intervention of the Embassy of the United States – an employee of “Associated Press”, Shahin Aivazov, was soon released. This confirms that this was a politically motivated set up, as the Embassy of the United States would not be asking for the release of the “Russian Spy”. In the end, after the unprecedented pressure on detained journalists, the case ended in a plea bargain and release of “spies”, with a condition of keeping the case details secret. This behavior of the Saakashvili’s government has confirmed that they are willing to put a spy label on the journalists allegedly for the distribution of politically undesirable materials, without even proving the spy allegations (the only evidence was a SIM card, which ostensibly belonged to the Russian FSB officer, but in the end it appears that it belonged to one of the Tbilisi pensioners).
In August 2011 Saakashvili and the ruling party eventually handed over the control of both of the only Internet Service Providers – “Silknet” and “Caucasus Online”, to their affiliated businessmen, in particular Sharangia brothers and offshore registered “International Online Network”). At the same time, both internet media resources of “Caucasus Online” – ITV.ge and Presa.ge, were transferred to the ownership of “Real TV”, headed by a loyal journalist-turned-policeman of the ruling party, Gurgen (Guram) Donadze, a former spine doctor of Ministry of Internal Affairs.
In November 2011 Tbilisi municipality has launched a tender with the aim of destroying those few dozens of the press of booths which remains outside the control of the mayor and the ruling party. Tender was announced exactly for those spots where the booths of “Planeta Forte”, “Elva Service” and “Matsne” were located for decades. During the electronic tender the server shut down and some people and companies did not get the chance to participate in e-application. The old booths were to be taken down in 2 days, despite the fact that the absolute majority of owners have previously acquired these booths lawfully. The new booth owners were granted with complete freedom to sell any product. The chief editor of pro-government propaganda media-trumpet “Tabula” magazine, Tamara Chergoleishvili (who, at the same time, is a wife of the Secretary of the Security Council, Giga Bokeria) says it is possible that shawarma or brooms be sold at booths, as this is to the new owner to decide, and she proudly and cynically clarifies that shawarma or brooms are as legal products as press is).
At the background of all of the above restrictions and the gradual spread of the use of harassment against the press distribution, the government turned its propagandists to the legion whose sole task is to blind, deafen and deceit, and their commitment to fulfill this task is indeed enviable.
Once famous for its criticism of the government’s deeds, the “Imedi” TV became more notorious on March 13, 2010, when its leadership has aired in the station’s news program “Modeled Chronicles” (and simultaneously on a radio) the so-called “the simulated war with Russia”. The viewers were warned that this was a hoax only in the beginning of the program, and not during the show by subtitles, thus prompting a mass panic in Georgia. Later an audio recording emerged on Internet where allegedly the General Director of channel (George Arveladze, former Chief of Staff of President) is talking with allegedly the head of the news of the same channel, Eka Tsamalashvili, telling her that “Misha” wanted to air this show without the subtitles that would clarify that the scenes were not real. The investigation has not been carried out, but the one of the opposition parties sent these recordings to one of the UK’s renowned forensic private firms for examination and they have confirmed the recordings to be authentic.
A TV channel “Real TV” was created by the government, allegedly by the Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, that is staffed with the former and current policemen and headed by Gurgen Donadze – an ex-journalist that has been featured quite a lot in the report of US State Department on the violation of human rights.
The cohort of government’s propaganda machine is filled by “Prime – Time”, headed by Gigi Ugulava’s sister-in-law and “24 Saati”, once the popular, but now absolutely unpopular and surviving on indirect state dotation. These are the same print media that do not show any solidarity with other journalists, even at the latest attack on freedom of obtaining information and on booths distributing the press by the municipality, because they are not the journalists themselves, but rather the guardians of Nazi and Bolshevik propaganda traditions as they do not regard the Mayor’s move to be a threat to their future, the distribution of newspapers and the violation of 41and 42articles of Constitution.
Finally, on November 30, 2011, at 07:15 Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Director of the Managing Company of TV company “Maestro”, together with 10 unidentified individuals stormed the offices of the independent TV company “Maestro” territory, denied the access of “Maestro” Director General and the staff to the building, announced that he dismisses the company founder and the Director General (without having any right to do so), took a hold of the building with the help of the police that did not reveal on whose orders it acted, and in fact has disrupted the “Maestro” programs by his raider-like conquer. This is very similar to raiding conquest of “NTV” TV channel by the Russian government. The government tries to portray this as a rivalry between the founders of TV company and the managing company, the Interior Ministry’s press speaker does not answer the phone during a whole day and says he does not know whom should Maestro’s journalists and founders refer to. Apparently, the last straw for the government was the fact that on a night before – November 29, TV “Maestro” aired the interview with a new opposition candidate, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist, Bidzina Ivanishvili – the main headache for government. The government lost its patience and attempted to destroy one of the last islands of free speech and freedom of expression through the hands of Kitsmarishvili. It should be stressed that during his first speeches Mr. Ivanishvili expressed very negative thoughts about the role Mr. Kitsmarishvili in Georgian politics, who founded an opposition party, the “Georgian Party”, who’s main action plan was to oust President Saakashvili’s regime through the street demonstrations. It is clear that the government’s and Mr. Kitsmarishvili’s interests at least coincide. Authorities are still trying to take control of and silence an independent media through someone else’s hands and put the public into a complete information vacuum.
It is necessary to appeal to all human rights and media freedom advocating organizations, UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International, diplomatic missions present in Georgia, to assess the continuing damaging, illegal and provocative actions of the President and the ruling party under his control that are aimed at restricting the availability of free information to the population, blocking and interfering in journalists’ professional work, intimidation and censorship of journalists, assisting the self-censorship among the media outlets and encouraging them to turn into propaganda machines that will strengthen the myth of Mikheil Saakashvili building a free and democratic paradise in Georgia.
No Lie Can Live Forever!