Prague, 20 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Last month, Amnesty International called on Georgia's new President Mikheil Saakashvili to demonstrate his commitment to democratic standards and to take decisive action to improve freedom of religion, speech and association.
Addressing the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe a few days later, Saakashvili vowed to boost his country's European integration by making Georgian democracy a "model" for other countries in the Southern Caucasus.
"I've said in a recent interview that I did not see any threat to media freedom or freedom of expression in Georgia. But the raid on Iberia has raised serious concerns among Georgia's human rights defenders."
Yet, critics at home and abroad say recent developments suggest Georgia may be moving in the opposite direction.
A few days ago, one of Saakashvili's closest associates, Koba Davitashvili, stepped down as secretary-general of the ruling National Movement party in protest at Saakashvili's leadership style. Of particular concern to him are constitutional changes recently adopted that he says weaken the power of the legislature, as well as attempts at silencing critics from the media. Davitashvili says these developments raise the prospect of Georgia giving birth -- in his words -- to an "authoritarian regime."
Other public figures, including independent opposition lawmaker Vakhtang Khmaladze, have voiced similar concerns.
Saakashvili has dismissed these accusations as "sheer demagoguery."
Rights campaigners have singled out what they say are attempts at muzzling independent media. Earlier this month, the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) said it is "deeply concerned" about attacks or intimidation aimed at the mass media since the ousting of President Eduard Shevardnadze last November. The group urged Georgia's central government to investigate these incidents and ensure that journalists can "exercise their profession free of harassment and violence."
Zviad Pochkhua is chairman of the Independent Association of Georgian Journalists and the editor in chief of the Tbilisi-based "Georgian Times" daily.
"The government is openly exerting pressure on journalists, threatening to close down some media organizations. A few days ago, the house of Luba Eliashvili, an anchorwoman who works with the [Iberia] television station, was riddled with bullets. Some media organizations have received threats. Those include the Interpress news agency, which was threatened with closure. Two popular talk shows were terminated on the Mze and Rustavi-2 television stations. We said this was a direct interference on the part of the government, which does not want to hear any criticism and seeks to muzzle press freedom. A few days ago, someone threw a big knife through one of my windows, and I took this as a warning," Pochkhua said.
Pochkhua spoke to RFE/RL by telephone yesterday as he was joining a demonstration in support of the Iberia television station, whose offices had been raided a few hours before by Georgian special police. Authorities say the operation is part of an anti-criminal sweep against Omega, Iberia's parent company.
Owned by independent lawmaker Zaza Okuashvili, Omega is Georgia's largest cigarette retailer. In addition to Iberia, Omega has stakes in various media outlets, including the "Akhali Epokha" (New Era) newspaper and the Media-News news agency.
Georgian Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili said yesterday that Omega is suspected of tax evasion and dismissed charges the raid is part of an operation to intimidate media critical of the government.
Saakashvili and his cabinet are vowing to revive the country's moribund economy and eliminate poverty. In their view, a prerequisite to attaining these objectives is to fight rampant corruption among civil servants and restore the rule of law.
Already, dozens of people -- mostly officials from the Shevardnadze administration or relatives of the former leader -- have been detained or summoned for questioning. Some have been imprisoned pending trial. Others have been released after paying heavy fines.
The United States has welcomed Saakashvili's attempts at stemming corruption. But the means used to achieve this goal are raising eyebrows elsewhere.
Visiting Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer on 18 February warned Georgian authorities that "the struggle against corruption should not exceed the limits of the law." A Council of Europe statement quotes Schwimmer as saying, "If the presumed sideslips reported to me are confirmed, they are unacceptable."
There has been no official comment from Tbilisi to Schwimmer's statements.
Georgia's acting human rights commissioner, or ombudsman, Teimuraz Lomsadze, says violations have been widespread since the country regained independence in 1991. But Lomsadze believes police violence has increased since the ouster of Shevardnadze last November.
"Since the November events, actions taken by the police have raised concerns among many human rights defenders. The rights of the suspects are being violated. It is well-known that civic rights are most often being violated during the arrest and the 72-hour remand period that follows the arrest. We've received several complaints of private citizens who say they are worried by the present situation and turn to [us] for help. We've documented several such cases, and one has to say that those are gross violations. For example, there have been a great number of cases when detainees have been beaten or harassed to give confessions," Lomsadze said.
While citing figures that show the shadow economy generates profits five times higher than the country's annual budget, Georgia's public defender says fighting crime and corruption cannot justify police abuse and other human rights violations.
"No one in Georgia denies that fighting corruption at the highest level is a necessity. But that does not justify the way arrests are being conducted and the fact that the rights of the detainees are being violated. When [our leaders] talk of the rule of law and the constitutional rights of Georgian citizens and when, [at the same time], these rights are being violated, this is very bad, and we must raise our voice and resolutely protest," Lomsadze said.
The Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office have promised to investigate reports of police violence and abuse.
Journalist Pochkhua claims the government is deliberately trying to stifle dissent and fears the atmosphere may worsen.
"We can say with certainty that all this is done purposely. These arrests are preceded by statements from the president. One day the president or members of his entourage say that such or such person is corrupt and should be apprehended, and the very next day, that person is arrested. We fear that that situation may soon expand to the [media] and that various journalists, publishers, or other representatives of the nongovernmental sector may be arrested, too," Pochkhua said.
Ombudsman Lomsadze says that, until recently, he had no particular concerns regarding press freedom in Georgia. But he believes yesterday's raid on Iberia may signal a dangerous shift.
"I've said in a recent interview that I did not see any threat to media freedom or freedom of expression [in Georgia]. But the [raid on Iberia] has raised serious concerns among all of us -- Georgia's human rights defenders," Lomsadze said.
Asked whether he believes Georgia could drift toward authoritarianism in its quest to eradicate crime and corruption, Lomsadze said: "I really wish that would not happen. But, unfortunately, I must say the first symptoms are already here."