International Community calls on Georgia to ensure media freedom, says government is failing to protect journalists.

In light of recent violent incidents against journalists, both the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Amnesty International have called on the Georgian government to uphold the rights and freedom of the media, and investigate thoroughly acts of aggression, and intimidation against representatives of the media.

OSCE Representative on Media Freedom, Dunja Mijatovic, in reference to the violent clashes in the villages of Mereti (26 June) and Karaleti (12 July) which left tens of people injured, many of whom were journalists, said in a statement on 16 July, “Journalists should be able to work unhindered, regardless of the political affiliation of the media outlets they represent.” She made it clear that the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the authorities “to ensure that media workers can perform their professional duties without fear of violence, or any other form of obstruction.”

The incident occurring on 12 July, in the village of Karaleti in the Shida Qartli region in Central Georgia, resulted in ten journalists from the Info-9 news agency, Metskhre Arkhi (TV9), Trialeti and the Shida Qartli Information Centre who were covering campaign activities of the opposition coalition Georgia Dream being sent to a hospital in Gori to have their injuries treated after fighting erupted. Media reports show several local residents verbally insulting and demanding that the Georgian Dream supporters leave the village immediately. As a confrontation developed, video recordings of the incident show residents throwing stones at the Georgian Dream activists and members of the press. As the media representatives and opposition supporters retreat, a man accompanying them is seen brandishing a gun. Six people, four opposition activists and two village residents, have been arrested and sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention according to the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs following the altercation in Karaleti. According to a lawyer for the Georgian Dream coalition, there were four principal agitators, allegedly connected to the United National Movement (UNM), who remain at large despite the opposition providing photo and video evidence which demonstrates their involvement in the violence.

Mijatovic, who has already been exchanging letters with the Georgian government over other cases of violence against journalists, expressed her hope that the government “will do their utmost to reverse this worrying trend.”

Amnesty International, the respected global human rights organisation, echoed the OSCE Representative’s views in a statement released on 20 July. “The authorities,” it says, “are failing to protect the opposition supporters and journalists from what appears to be politically targeted violence.” Amnesty called on the Georgian government “to ensure freedom of expression and association of all persons regardless of their political views or association and to bring those responsible for the recent attacks to justice following a thorough, impartial and effective investigation.”

The statement also highlighted Amnesty’s growing concern over the increasing number of reports of pro-opposition journalists being harassed and prevented from carrying out their work, pointing to the case of Ekaterine Dugladze. Dugladze, a female reporter with internet-based Info-9 News Agency in Zestaponi, has been constantly followed by a group of seven young men for the past three weeks. She told Amnesty that the men follow her by car or on foot, preventing her freedom of movement, interfering with filming and interviews, and come “physically very close […] making inappropriate remarks about my work and private life and asking questions in an non-stop manner.” The Info-9 correspondent has filed a complaint with the police, but to no avail. “I am forced to continue my work in an in intimidating and threatening environment, feeling completely unprotected,” she said. Amnesty urged the Georgian authorities “to ensure that the journalists are able to work unhindered and without the fear of violence regardless of the political affiliation of the media outlets they represent.”

Finally, both international bodies expressed their unease over the seizure of over 10,000 satellite dishes from independent media agency Maestro TV at the beginning of this month. Mijatovic of the OSCE hoped that the decision made by the Tbilisi City Court “would not negatively impact the right of its viewers to freely receive information.” Representatives of twenty different Georgian media outlets met on Friday in Tbilisi in support of Maestro TV. The group, according to Democracy and Freedom Watch, is demanding that the prosecutor’s office and the Tbilisi city court cancel the seizure and reverse their actions on the grounds that authorities “violated freedom of speech and the public’s right to receive diverse information.”

The appeal states that “the step taken by the prosecutor’s office together with the court contradicts [the democratic] principles declared by Georgia and prevents people from making an informed choice in the upcoming parliamentary elections,” noting, “it is completely unacceptable [to use] state institutions against [the] media, such as the prosecutor’s office and the court, especially when it is done for political reasons.” Tamar Chugoshvili, chair of the Georgian Young Lawyer’s Association, is concerned that the number of cases hindering the work of the media in Georgia is increasing. She said that a serious issue in Georgia remains the fact that political neutrality does not exist. She noted, that the line between the ruling political party and the government is very unclear, making it difficult to distinguish between the activities of the UNM and the authorities.

Report prepared for CEW by Karina Gould with reporting from on line Georgian media and the websites of the OSCE and Amnesty International.