The resignation of President Edvard Shevardnadze at the end of November 2003 raised fresh hopes for press freedom in Georgia. Most infringements of journalists’ rights took place around the time of the parliamentary elections.
Edvard Shevardnadze resigned on 23 November 2003 after 11 years as president. The man dubbed "the fox of the Caucasus" stood down in response to mass protests led by the opposition after the 2 November parliamentary elections. Several weeks of demonstrations against election fraud resulted in a "rose revolution" that came as a surprise in a region with a powder-keg reputation.
The privately-owned TV channel Rustavi 2, which has been at loggerheads with the government for several years, was the one that gave most airtime to the demonstrations and quotes from opposition leaders. Because of this key role during the three weeks of public protest, the channel was boycotted by the national elections board and several political parties. The leaders of the autonomous republic of Adjaria, loyal supporters of Shevardnadze, banned Rustavi 2 from broadcasting in the region after the opposition took power. They also put pressure on newspapers that regularly criticised them.
Right to the end, Shevardnadze regarded state television as a slave to the established order and to his own authority, forcing broadcasting authority chairman Zaza Shemdiliya to resign because he had not given the president enough backing. In December state television and Rustavi 2 buildings in Tbilisi were targets of bomb attacks which observers saw as attempts to destabilise the media in the run-up to presidential elections on 4 January 2004.
No significant progress was made on legislation in 2003, partly because the government lacked any real determination to reform media laws.
New information on a journalist killed before 2003
A Tbilisi court sentenced Grigol Khurtsilava, a former interior ministry employee, to 13 years in prison on 9 July 2003 for the murder of a journalist from the the opposition TV channel Rustavi 2, Georgy Sanaya. Khurtsilava claimed the journalist had tried to have sex with him and he had killed him in anger, but could not remember what happened immediately before the murder. Sanaya’s family, who said the trial was "a farce", believes he was murdered for political motives - because of his investigative reporting. His widow, Khatuna Shkhaidze, has appealed against the sentence and called for a new inquiry.
Yelena Tevdoradzi, former chairwoman of the parliamentary human rights committee, said Sanaya was believed to have had a videotape that proved ministers and high-ranking police officials had been involved in kidnappings in the Pankissi Gorges region. Sanaya, Rustavi 2’s star presenter and one of Georgia’s most popular young TV journalists, was found shot in the head in his Tbilisi apartment on 26 July 2001. He had presented newscasts and a daily show called "Evening News" featuring interviews and political comment.
Journalists physically attacked
After a hearing in the trial of the alleged killer of Rustavi 2 journalist Georgy Sanaya on 30 May 2003, a friend of the defendant, Amoral Khvedeliani, attacked and bit Tiko Peikrishvvili, a reporter with the same channel. He had just asked Khvedeliani if he had given the police correct information about the defendant.
Crews from the TV channels Rustavi 2 and Metskhre Arkhi were set upon by police on 11 October as they were filming an anti-government gathering of the Kmara student movement in Poti, on the Black Sea.
Three journalists threatened
Izida Shania, editor of the weekly Nuzhnaya Gazeta in Sukhumi, in the autonomous republic of Abkhazia, received threatening phone calls in early April 2003. She and her colleagues had already been threatened after the newspaper published reports criticising Abkhazian leaders’ policies.
Malkaz Gulashvili, a founder member of the Georgian Times press group and managing editor of the daily Tribuna, said on 8 May that a high-ranking official had told him two days earlier that if his newspapers continued to carry reports insulting the official’s political party, the party leader would send one of his bodyguards to kill Gulashvili and his children. Gulashvili did not name the official or the party. The leader of the autonomous republic of Adjaria, Aslan Abashidze, has brought a libel case against Tribuna.
Windows at the house of the parents of Luba Eliashvili, editor of the privately-owned Tbilisi TV channel Iberia, were set on fire on 25 November. It was not clear on 1 January 2004 whether the attack was connected with the journalist’s work.
Harassment and obstruction
The state-owned daily Sakartevelos Respublika published a supreme court statement on 10 March 2003 calling on the public prosecutor to investigate the programme "60 minutes" on Rustavi 2. It referred to the 16 February edition, which reported that officials filmed by hidden cameras while involved in corruption had had their names cleared. Human rights organisations in Georgia and abroad hit out at the request, and it was not taken up.
Saboteurs destroyed the transmitter of the privately-owned radio station Dzveli Kalaki in Kutaisi, eastern Georgia, on 25 March, keeping it off the air for a month. Station editor Temur Iashvili blamed local leaders close to President Shevardnadze for the attack. Dzveli Kalaki, which is known for its impartial approach, was damaging to their chances in the 2 November parliamentary elections, he said. On 1 January 2004 it was still not clear who had sabotaged the equipment.
A court in Batumi, Adjaria, banned the weekly Batumelebi from publishing on 26 July on the pretext that the name was already in use. Editor Eter Turadze pointed out that the ban came just ahead of parliamentary elections, as the newspaper was printing reports criticizing the running of Adjaria. In September the newspaper was fined 100,000 laris (37,000 euros) after the health ministry complained about a story on a public health problem.
A court fined Rustavi 2 a million laris (370,000 euros) for libel on 11 August. The former head of state railways, Akaki Shkhaidze, had filed a complaint about the programme "60 minutes" in October 2002 after it accused him of tax fraud and money-laundering.
Nana Keinishvili, chairwoman of the Georgian Red Cross, banned a reporter from the weekly Akhali Versia from attending the organisation’s annual meeting on 13 August. The paper had printed reports exposing alleged corruption in the organisation.
On 25 August the national elections board banned media from reporting campaign news 50 days before the 2 November parliamentary elections. Broadcasters were also told they could not put out any programmes with candidates taking part. Several human rights organisations complained about the ban, which was overruled by a Tbilisi court on 3 September.
On the same day Koka Kandiashvili, presenter of the "What’s happening?" news programme on state television, said he was resigning and would only return to his job if the public broadcasting service stopped giving the government unconditional support. Other journalists accused the government of manipulating the media and using state television as a propaganda weapon.
Guram Donadze, of the opposition channel Rustavi 2, was set upon by Tamaz Giorgadze, a member of the pro-government coalition For A New Georgia, on 10 November as he was trying to find out who President Shevardnadze was planning to meet at Tbilisi airport.
The elections board decided on 13 November to cancel Rustavi 2’s accreditation because it had broadcast a message from the Kmara student movement calling on several board members to stop rigging the poll. The students said the board members should think of the Georgian people, and warned that they would be jailed if they persisted with the fraud.
At a cabinet meeting on 19 November, President Shevardnadze criticized state radio and television coverage of the 2 November parliamentary elections and the political crisis that followed. He accused them of not giving the government enough support in the face of the protest movement launched afterwards by the opposition. "You can’t be in both camps at the same time," he said. State broadcasting chairman Zaza Chemdiliya, who was at the cabinet meeting, left the room with culture minister Cecili Gagebilidze and announced his resignation.
On 23 November Mikhail Saakashvili, the opposition politician leading protests against the parliamentary elections and demanding the resignation of Shevardnadze, called for state television to be taken over because it had "supported the president’s criminal policies". Several hundred demonstrators gathered near the channel’s headquarters and asked the management to stop broadcasting propaganda for the governments of Shevardnadze and Aslan Abashidze, leader of the autonomous republic of Adjaria. An agreement was negotiated and the management promised to provide objective coverage.
The authorities in Adjaria banned Rustavi 2 from transmitting to the region from 25 November and jammed its broadcasts. They had started to hit out at the channel on election day, 2 November, when it reported the results of a poll showing that the Renewal Party, headed by Abashidze, would get poor results. Rustavi 2 had also given extensive coverage to the post-election demonstrations calling for the resignation of President Shevardnadze and of Abashidze.
The state television building in Tbilisi was damaged in an explosion during the evening of 3 December, but broadcasts were not disrupted. Interior ministry spokeswoman Nika Laliachvili said an anonymous phone call had been received after the blast. "This is only the start. We’re going to blow up the whole building," the caller reportedly said. The explosives charge was believed to be equivalent to 300 grammes of TNT.
A rocket was fired at the Tbilisi premises of Rustavi 2 on 29 December, smashing a hole in the concrete wall of the main studio. None of the 12 journalists present were hurt. Police, who have started a sabotage investigation, found an anti-tank rocket launcher about 300 yards away from the scene.