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Georgia

Georgia - Annual Report 2008
Area: 69,700 sq.km
Population: 4,433,000
Language: Georgian
Head of state: President Mikheil Saakashvili


Political divisions severely tested press freedom. Journalists in the Abkhazia autonomous region were also under pressure.

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Growing tension between the opposition and President Mikheil Saakashvili peaked in late 2007 with demonstrations calling for him to step down and for early parliamentary elections. About 500 people were injured on 7 November when police forcibly broke up the protests. Saakhasvili declared a state of emergency, saying Russia was trying to stir up trouble and overthrow him, and development minister Georgy Arveladze shut down all news programmes on independent TV stations, leaving the state-controlled Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) as the only station allowed to broadcast news.

Imedi, the most popular of the three privately-owned TV stations, with two-thirds of the national audience and run by opposition figure Badri Patarkatsishvili, went off the air when special security forces went to its studios and cut off the power.

The crisis began with the arrest in September of former defence minister Irakli Okruashvili, who had accused Saakashvili of corruption and wanting to get rid of Patarkatsishvili. He retracted his charges after his arrest but in Munich on 5 November he repeated them in an interview with Imedi.

Political troubles obstruct the media

The state of emergency was lifted on 16 November after the government agree to hold early presidential elections on 5 January 2008. But this did not allow Imedi to resume broadcasting as a court had suspended it for three months because of statements by Patarkatsishvili.

The station went back on the air on 12 December thanks to a court decision but stopped broadcasting two weeks later in protest against the accusations against Patarkatsishvili and against the pressure from the government. Its head of political programmes said the station would stay off the air until the legal position of Patarkatsishvili was clarified and the political situation returned to normal.

A shady affaire

Saakashvili won the 5 January presidential election with 52.8% of the vote, against 27% for combined opposition candidate Levan Gachechalidze, but political tension remained high. The opposition said the election had been rigged and demonstrated in Tbilisi, while the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called on all sides to accept the results of the election, which it said was up to international standards, despite some irregularities. It urged candidates to observe democratic principles and act responsibly. The early parliamentary elections due in spring 2008 will probably see an even uglier battle between the two sides.

Several journalists in the Abkhazia autonomous region claimed by Russia, met the governor, Sergei Bagapsh, and told him about the problems they were having, including newspaper distribution, heavy and arbitrary taxes, lack of legal clarity and difficult access to public information.

Journalist Shalva Ramishvili, co-founder of the independent TV station 202, who was sentenced to four years in prison in March 2006 for extortion, remained in jail while his co-accused, David Kokhreidze, was pardoned by the president and freed.

The two journalists had been arrested in August 2005 and accused of trying to extort $100,000 from a government member of parliament, Koba Bekauri, during an interview they had with him and in which they tried to show that he was corrupt. Bekauri agreed to the interview but secretly filmed the occasion. The journalists had asked him - for the purposes of the programme - for $100,000 to not reveal what they knew. Bekauri filed a legal complaint and used the film against them.

Ramishvili admitted the methods they used were probably wrong, in a letter published in the media in 2007, but continued to claim he was not guilty of extortion.




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Introduction Europe and the former USSR - Annual Report 2008
Austria
Azerbaijan
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Georgia
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Preface : Between impotence, cowardice and duplicity
Introduction : Press freedom faces dangerous elections and an olympic summer in 2008
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