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Georgia15 March 2004

Media suffers relentless harassment in autonomous republic of Ajaria

Security forces and journalists clashed three more times in Ajaria on 13 March 2004.

Police harassed television crews covering the visit of Georgian finance minister Zurab Nogaideli, who filmed the brief detention of the official by the local authorities.

At Kelvachauri, security forces accompanied by armed individuals physically attacked the driver of the Channel 9 crew, Jumber Chevardnadze, and seized tapes from journalist Nata Imedashvili and cameraman Ramaz Jorbenadze.

Journalist Nestan Checkhladze, of the privately owned Rustavi 2 channel and his cameraman Baka Sharahenidze were arrested at Makho and their tapes seized.

Police also seized footage taken by the privately owned channel Imedi.

Assailants, identified by a witness as belonging to special forces, brutally beat a television journalist on 5 March, in the latest of some dozen incidents of harassment of the media in the autonomous Republic of Ajaria so far this year.

Reporters Without Borders called for a halt to the harassment. "The authorities in Ajaria must stop obstructing the work of the media in the region and take the strongest action against those who use violence against journalists," it said.

The attack on Vakhtang Komakhidze, of the programme "60 minutes" on the privately owned television channel Rustavi 2 came after he was pulled over by police as he was driving out of Khelvachauri town in the company of another journalist.

Several black-clad men then jumped on him, beat him and seized equipment and documents from both journalists. The police did nothing to stop the attack.

His colleague Mzia Amaglobeli of the Adjara weekly Batumelebi, who was not attacked, recognised the assailants as members of a special Adjara service responsible for putting down demonstrations.

Komakhidze had been researching a report on alleged corruption by President Aslan Abashidze and his family. The previous evening his cameraman, Dimitri Miasnikov, had been questioned by police in Batumi, the republic’s main town.

Reporters Without Borders recorded around a dozen incidents of harassment so far this year.

The authorities banned the television channels Rustavi 2 and Imedi from working in the region and in two months five journalists have been physically assaulted and five other arrested. The security forces have done everything possible to prevent the press from covering demonstrations against the president of the republic, who is opposed to new Georgian President Mikhaïl Saakashvili, the organisation said.

It urged President Saakashvili to act quickly if the local authorities failed to take the necessary action.

Rustavi 2 cameraman Dimitri Miasnikov was arrested in Batumi on 4 March. He was held for one hour in the offices of the interior ministry while police deleted footage he had taken for "60 minutes".

Counter-demonstrators at a demonstration against President Abashidze in Batumi on 20 February set upon television journalists covering the story. Cameraman for Channel 9, Ramaz Jorbenadze, was physically attacked. Nato Imedaishvili, his colleague Diana Trapaidze and Irakli Kifiani of the private channel Imedi, together with Nestan Checkhladze and David Maisuradze of Rustavi 2, were all targeted by the counter-demonstrators and forced to hand over film they had just shot. The demonstrators also threatened to ransack the offices of the weekly Batumelebi.

Four armed men burst into the Batumi home of David Gogitauri, cameraman for Imedi on 28 January. They beat him and threatened further reprisals unless he stopped covering political events in Ajaria. They also seized a filmed interview with the mayor of Batumi and son of Aslan Abashidze, Giorgi Abashidze.

The same journalist was victim of an earlier attack on 13 January by about 15 unidentified assailants as he was about to interview a man who had been beaten up after hanging from his window the traditional Georgian flag, symbol of the National Movement party of President Mikhaïl Saakashvili.

Police targeted Eter Turadze and Mzia Amaglobeli of Batumelebi during a demonstration against the local government in Batumi on 25 January. They snatched and destroyed their equipment. The two journalists had already been beaten up by a gang of around 15 black-clad men as they covered a demonstration in support of Mikhaïl Saakashvili in the village of Gonio. The attackers also seized and damaged their equipment.

Police in Batumi roughed up Diana Trapaidze and Nestan Checkhladze on 10 January, when they filmed them in the act of ripping up posters of the Kmara movement. Police accused the journalists of promoting the movement that headed the "rose revolution". Police also beat Tedo Jorbenadze of Batumelebi. All three journalists were held for nearly one hour.

Finally, on 7 and 8 January, the authorities prevented Rustavi 2 journalist Irakli Shetciruli from crossing the republic’s administrative border at Choloki.

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