3 January 2005, Volume
SOME GEORGIAN JOURNALISTS STILL FEEL LESS EQUAL THAN OTHERS
By Liz Fuller
While the new Georgian leadership that came to power in November 2003 has tackled many of the negative phenomena that characterized the Shevardnadze era, one sphere in which conditions have not improved markedly is journalism -- at least in the estimation of many journalists.
Within days of President Eduard Shevardnadze's ouster in November 2003, reprisals were reported against journalists and media outlets that were less than unequivocal in their approval of the regime change. And over the past year, the new leadership has on several occasions targeted individual journalists perceived as loyal to the previous regime, and editors who dare publicize instances of official corruption. It must be admitted, however, that pressure on and reprisals against independent journalists in Georgia are not on the same scale as, for example, in neighboring Azerbaijan.
Television is by far the most popular media in Georgia, as in most former Soviet republics, with the print media reduced to Cinderella status, largely because of the impoverished population's limited spending power. Within weeks of Mikheil Saakashvili's election on 5 January as Georgia's new president, the independent TV stations Imedi, Mze, and Rustavi-2 pulled popular late-night talk shows. Opposition Socialist faction head Irakli Mindeli told the parliament bureau on 9 February that the directors of the three companies were warned that if they did not do so, they would "meet the same fate as" Mikhail Khodorkovskii, CEO of Russia's embattled oil giant Yukos, who was arrested in the fall of 2003 on charges of tax evasion. (Imedi is financed by Badri Patarkatsishvili, who was close to Shevardnadze; it and Mze are perceived as "opposition" outlets, while Rustavi-2, which backed Saakashvili during the November 2003 protests that culminated in Shevardnadze's ouster, is perceived as supportive of the new leadership.) Parliament duly set up a working group to investigate those allegations, but it failed to register any political pressure on the three stations, Caucasus Press reported on 24 February.
Two independent TV stations have folded over the past year, however, while a third is in financial difficulties. In February, then Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili accused the Omega group owned by parliament deputy Zaza Okuashvili of evading excise payments totaling 12 million laris ($6.7 million) by counterfeiting excise stamps on smuggled cigarettes, a charge Okuashvili rejected as "absurd." The Omega group included the Iberia television company, the newspaper "Akhali epokha," and a news agency. Okruashvili incurred criticism from then Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer for having the building that housed Omega headquarters cordoned off by police who opened fire on 21 February at journalists employed by Omega who sought to enter the building. In May, a Tbilisi district court ruled that Iberia's property be returned to businessman Kakha Gagloshvili, from whom Okuashvili acquired the station.
In April, businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili unexpectedly announced the closure of his Metskhre Arkhi (Ninth Channel), which two months earlier won a tender for a 10-year nationwide broadcasting license. Ivanishvili did not give any explanation for his decision. Seven months later, most of Mtskhre Arkhi's journalists had still not found alternative employment despite their acknowledged professionalism, according to the daily "Akhali taoba" on 22 November.
In mid-August, Nino Djangirashvili, general director of the independent television station Kavkazia, told a press conference that the authorities were seeking to close it on the grounds of unpaid debts of 14,000 laris for the use of state-owned transmission facilities. Djangirashvili attributed that pressure to the authorities' reluctance to tolerate "a television company with an independent point of view."
The fate of Metskhre Arkhi may simply reflect the pragmatism of some Georgian businessmen who acquire, and then sell, media outlets as part of a larger business empire. But by virtue of television's domination of the media scene, private television stations can also become powerful political instruments. As noted above, Rustavi-2 for years served as the primary opposition media outlet, and played a major role in reporting on the attempted rigging of the 3 November 2003 parliamentary election that served as the catalyst for the popular protests that culminated in Shevardadze's ouster. Yet in the months following the so-called Rose Revolution, Rustavi-2's popularity declined as it was increasingly perceived as the mouthpiece of the new leadership and a weapon in its campaign to denigrate influential survivors from the Shevardnadze era, including Patarkatsishvili. In early summer, Rustavi-2's owner Erosi Kitsmarishvili filed for bankruptcy in a Tbilisi court, but thanks in part to Saakashvili, who according to the daily "Alia" on 29 June argued that the "channel of the victorious" must not be allowed to disappear, the station succeeded in negotiating a deal under which its management is to pay off debts totaling 9 million laris ($5 million) over a period of 15-20 years.
That preferential treatment is in stark contrast to the reprisals meted out to journalists who persist in highlighting official corruption. In early May, Zurab Kachvlashvili, the editor of a local paper published in the eastern Georgian town of Telavi, was attacked by unknown assailants who warned him against continuing to publicize illegal activities by provincial Governor Petre Tsiskarishvili and Telavi administration head Gocha Mamatsashvili. In July, the English-language "Georgian Times" was harassed by state auditors after publishing an article that criticized Tbilisi city prosecutor Valerii Grigalashvili. Also in July, Revaz Okruashvili, editor of the Gori local newspaper "Sakhalkho gazeti" and the author of similar articles criticizing local bigwigs, was arrested after police apparently planted drugs on him during a search. Okruashvili was sentenced to three months' pretrial detention but subsequently released after agreeing to pay a fine.
Neither the closure of some independent television channels nor reprisals of the type described above have impacted on the popular perception, corroborated by international human rights watchdogs such as Freedom House, that the media in Georgia enjoy greater freedom than in most other former Soviet republics. A poll of 442 people summarized by the weekly "Kviris palitra" in early October found that 73 percent of respondents believed that the media now enjoy the same degree or more freedom than under Shevardnadze.
In late June, the Georgian parliament passed new legislation on freedom of speech that, among other things, stipulates that in the event of a libel suit, the journalist responsible for the offending statement is subject to legal action, but not the owner of the media outlet that published or broadcast it. The new law also absolves journalists from responsibility for publishing information designated as a state secret. Then on 23 December, parliament passed a new law on broadcasting intended to provide the legal framework for the transformation of the first channel of state television into a public broadcaster. That broadcaster is to be financed by the state from tax revenues, receiving some 17 million laris in 2005.
That provision of the law is one of several protested by the opposition New Rightists parliament faction, which argued that the receipt of state funding would automatically render the new broadcaster vulnerable to government pressure, and that it should be self-financing. The New Rightists also objected to the 1 December decision by the interim commission formed to monitor the creation of the new public broadcaster that any journalists who worked for state television and radio under Shevardnadze, including former Director Zaza Shengelia, should be declared ineligible for employment by the new station.
The owners of independent television stations, for their part, object to the article of the new law that permits the public television station to broadcast commercial advertising. They argue that it should not need to do so in light of the funds it will receive from the budget, and that allowing commercial advertising on that station will deprive them of a crucial source of income.
That financial concession to the new public-broadcaster decision is only one of many decisions that, taken together, give the impression that, possibly unintentionally, the new Georgian leadership is failing to deliver on its stated commitment to strengthen media freedom. To a certain extent, that failure may reflect a conflict of interest within the government, as in the case of the ongoing debate over whether the media should pay income tax. Finance Minister Zurab Nogaideli argued on 7 December that as media outlets are exempt from paying value-added tax, they should not be exempt from income tax as well; the following day, President Saakashvili told journalists that unspecified tax privileges are essential to safeguard the media from political pressure.
Some apparent inconsistencies, such as preferential treatment for television over radio and the print media, may be purely fortuitous. For example, Saakashvili pledged at a press conference on 28 September that "as long as I am president, nothing will threaten independent television." And for reasons that the newspaper "Alia" could not explain, only television stations, but no journalists from the print media, were invited to cover President Saakashvili's special press briefing on 23 November, the first anniversary of Shevardnadze's ouster. But in the politicized and still polarized world of Georgian journalism, such decisions inevitably fuel independent journalists' perceptions of persisting inequality and discrimination.
A YEAR OF WRITING DANGEROUSLY.
Two media watchdogs have concluded that 2004 was among the deadliest years for journalists in recent history. The Committee to Protest Journalists (CPJ) made the most recent assessment, announcing in early December that 2004 had been the deadliest year for journalists in a decade. Fifty-four journalists had been killed as of 10 December -- the highest death toll since 1994, when 66 were killed, many in Algeria's civil war, Rwanda, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The World Association of Newspapers noted in November that 10 more journalists had died working this year than in all of 2003.
In October, Reporters Without Borders declared Iraq, specifically, as the most deadly place on earth for journalists in its "Third Annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index" issued on 26 October (http://www.rsf.org). According to CPJ, the vast majority of those killed in Iraq are Iraqi journalists, who were targeted by insurgents, caught in crossfire, or killed by the U.S. forces' fire.
In an interview with RFE/RL in November, Kajsa Tornroth, press-freedom director for the World Association of Newspapers, said she thinks the world is becoming inured to violence in general and to attacks on journalists in particular. In addition, she said too many autocratic governments contribute to extending this climate of violence -- especially to journalists.
"Especially with regard to the culture of impunity, I think that many, many governments are sending out very worrying signals to people in not trying to punish the murderers of journalists," Tornroth said. She said this growing callousness translates into an unspoken acceptance of attacks on journalists.
"I think that over the years, people who would like to attack or kill journalists have simply learned that this is something you can do and get away with," Tornroth said. "I think that it's a thing that's been happening over a long period of year and now we're facing a situation where the numbers have just become drastic and we're facing a completely intolerable situation."
One of the most recent journalists to be killed this year was Veranika Charkasava, a Belarusian journalist who was stabbed to death just outside her home in Minsk on 20 October. Charkasava, 44, worked for the trade-union newspaper "Solidarnost" and had previously worked for the independent newspapers "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" and "Belarusskaya gazeta." According to the Moscow-based "Gazeta" on 22 October, not just her colleagues but a broader community in Belarus believe that her death was connected to her professional activities, in particular to a recent series of articles on the Belarusian KGB. Her articles, published under the rubric "The KGB Is Following You," explored the special service's activities in recent years, detailing the facts of the arrests of foreign citizens accused of espionage.
Charkasava started her journalistic career in television after finishing journalism school at Belarus State University, according to gazeta.ru on 21 October. With the rise of Alyaksandr Lukashenka to power in 1994, she joined the opposition weekly "Imya" and after that worked only for independent publications, "Gazeta" reported. According to gazeta.ru, Charkasava was considered one of the most professional journalists writing on social problems.
Investigators believe that Charkasava opened the door to her killer around 11 a.m. on 20 October. The killer stabbed her 20 times -- allegedly with her own kitchen knife -- as she tried to defend herself. According to Interfax, the local police believe that a personal quarrel was the most likely cause. An unidentified high-ranking Belarusian Interior Ministry source told the agency that "somebody who is planning a murder usually has the weapon with them."
However, colleagues at "Solidarnost," who wished to remain anonymous, told "Gazeta" that all of her friends and acquaintance were well known to them and she did not consort with drunks, bums, drug addicts, or criminals. "She was a very open, honest, decent person without any conflicts with anyone," according to "Gazeta." One unidentified colleague speculated that the series of "exposes" on the KGB could have been a reason for retaliation. Speaking on the record to gazeta.ru, "Solidarnost" deputy editor Maryna Zahorskaya seemed to dismiss this possibility, saying that the articles "did not unearth new pieces of information that nobody knew but were simply an analysis based on known facts." She also described Charkasava as closed person who kept to herself and a select group of friends.
In the meantime, international groups such as Reporters Without Borders and PEN Canada have asked for an independent investigation of Charkasava's killing. But such an investigation is not likely to be forthcoming, perhaps further reinforcing the "culture of impunity" that Tornroth identified. (Julie A. Corwin)
REPRESSION OF INTERNET SECTOR CONTINUES
By Bill Samii
Some Iranian online journalists who were arrested in the autumn were released after writing letters of contrition that were published in newspapers. The respite has been short-lived, however, especially for journalists who later described the mistreatment they underwent. Two of them, Hanif Mazrui and Fereshteh Qazi, received Press Court summonses on 23 December, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported the next day. The two face accusations of, among other things, disturbing public opinion.
The Journalists Guild spoke out against the summonses on 25 December, ILNA reported. The guild called on the judiciary to desist from such actions against correspondents.
Journalists Guild head Rajabali Mazrui (Hanif Mazrui's father) criticized the judiciary for torturing the detained journalists in a 10 December letter to President Mohammad Khatami. One day later, three of the released journalists -- Omid Memarian, Ruzbeh Mir-Ebrahimi, and Shahram Rafizadeh -- were taken into custody again, Human Rights Watch reported. Press Court Judge Said Mortazavi warned them that if they did not refute the allegations of torture they would spend a long time in prison. Memarian, Mir-Ebrahimi, Rafizadeh, and Javad Gholam-Tamimi, who was detained in October and had not been released yet, gave televised confessions on 14 December in which they said they never endured torture, solitary detention, and/or any other form of abuse.
Some of the arrested online journalists were coerced into falsely confessing that they had physical relations with prominent reformist officials, such as Mustafa Tajzadeh and Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Radio Farda reported on 28 December, citing Abtahi's weblog (http://www.webnevesht.com/weblog). Tajzadeh is a former deputy interior minister and a leader in the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization. Abtahi serves as a presidential adviser and until his October resignation was vice president for legal and parliamentary affairs. Abtahi writes that he spoke with the bloggers and journalists after their letters of contrition were published and their confessions televised, and they described the beatings they suffered at their jailers' hands.
Fereshteh Qazi complained about this abuse to Judge Mortazavi when she appeared before him on 27 December, Radio Farda reported, citing ILNA. Mortazavi sent her to a physician to determine the veracity of her claims.
Typical of these letters of contrition is one from Javad Gholam-Tamimi that was described in the 5 December "Jomhuri-yi Islami" (on other letters of contrition, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 7 and 14 December 2004). His letter was addressed to Journalists Guild chief Rajabali Mazrui and was faxed to the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) from Evin prison. Gholam-Tamimi allegedly said he was fooled into acts of treason, the last of which involved receiving payment for cooperating with the military attache of a foreign embassy. He denounced the Journalists Guild, allegedly writing, "I declare my disdain for you and the union affiliated with you that want to misuse my name, and I ask for judicial prosecution of those who try to create tension in society merely under the pretext of supporting a criminal." Gholam-Tamimi said he was never in solitary confinement, prison officials had treated him well, and "I am embarrassed and I do not know what to do in return for so many favors that the authorities have done for me."
Obviously, the Journalists Guild recognizes that such a letter was almost certainly coerced and it therefore maintains its interest in and commitment to the issue. The conservative-dominated legislature, on the other hand, appears to accept these letters at face value. Alaedin Borujerdi, head of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee, said he and his colleagues might look into the allegations raised in the letters, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 6 December. He said the letter writers were acting freely, and their claims of acting under others' influence require investigation.
Iranian journalists have had a difficult time since the country's 1979 revolution. Iran now holds the dubious honor of being the Middle East's biggest prison for journalists, according to Human Rights Watch. The government's closure of approximately 100 publications over the last 4 1/2 years silenced many voices, and the remaining press outlets are forced to practice self-censorship to remain open. Some of those journalists began to ply their trade using the Internet, but even that process has become dangerous. Some are now abandoning the political scene, while others are leaving Iran. "I am quitting political work for good in Iran," Hanif Mazrui said in the 26 December "New York Times," and a former detainee who requested anonymity said that he and some of his colleagues intend to leave the country. That is exactly what the hard-liners in Iran want -- an absence of oversight so they can ride roughshod over their compatriots' rights.