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Georgia: Government Under Fire Over Journalists’ Beatings

Unidentified attackers yesterday beat up a Georgian journalist working for a private television channel. Colleagues and opposition leaders claim authorities are behind that and another, similar incident that also involved an independent reporter. The government denies foul play and has vowed to bring the culprits to justice.

Prague, 8 September 2005 (RFE/RL) – On 6 September, a local reporter working for the Tbilisi-based “Akhali Versia” (New Version) independent newspaper was physically assaulted in the central Georgian town of Gori.

The journalist, Saba Chichikashvili, has blamed authorities for the attack, suggesting it could be linked to his critical reporting on regional Governor Mikheil Kareli. Kareli has denied the charges and ordered an investigation into the beating.

Hours after the Gori incident, a similar assault was reported in Tbilisi. This time, it involved a popular anchorman for the 202 private television station.

Irakli Kakabadze, who hosts a political show on 202, told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service that unidentified attackers assaulted him while he was returning home after work. “It happened in the middle of the night," he said. "It was all over within 15 seconds, literally. The attackers stole my wallet, in which I kept 80 laris [less than $40]. At four in the morning in the street, it could be either an ordinary petty crime, or something extraordinary.”

Kakabadze initially cautioned against speculation that the incident could be politically motivated. But he said he later began suspecting the attack was not merely criminal.

Friends, relatives, and opposition political leaders accuse the authorities of being behind the attack.

Republican party Chairman Davit Usupashvili yesterday charged that the assault on Kakabadze was part of government plans to muzzle critics. “If the authorities do not pull themselves together at once, if they do not stop behaving like this, if they do not take steps to protect those who raise their voices against the government, then things will turn very bad,” Usupashvili said.

Presidential spokesman Gela Charkviani yesterday denied the authorities were involved in this week’s journalists’ beatings. “Attempts are being made to establish a connection between these incidents and the authorities. These kinds of suggestions are absolutely groundless. The Georgian authorities and the president of Georgia want these cases to be solved, the culprits to be identified, and the democratic norms of life to be respected,” Charkviani said.

President Mikheil Saakashvili, on a visit to the southern region of Samtskhe-Djavakheti yesterday, demanded an immediate investigation into both incidents, assuring that his government is committed to protecting the freedom of the press.
“If the authorities do not pull themselves together at once, if they do not stop behaving like this, if they do not take steps to protect those who raise their voices against the government, then things will turn very bad." - opposition leader

Kakabadze’s lawyer, Soso Baratashvili, told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service today that he suspects foul play. “We believe what happened could be either a criminal incident involving just private citizens, or a contract assault," he said. "It would be premature to draw any conclusions at the present stage and we must wait until the investigation is over. However, some collateral elements suggest there is something wrong with our law-enforcement agencies in particular, and with our [political] leadership in general.”

The Tbilisi prosecutor’s office released a video yesterday purporting to suggest Kakabadze was caught up in a brawl with drunks. The video shows a man identified as a producer for the 202 television channel giving testimony. In it, Zaal Baidashvili says Kakabadze got drunk at his apartment and initiated a fistfight with young men who were sitting in the building’s courtyard.

“Politics is just a motive, a pretense. It is just PR," Baidashvili says on the tape. "In fact, it was a mere neighborhood brawl. Irakli and I later decided to use this incident for political PR, so that it would look like a plot against him because he presents [a political talk show], so that it would look like everything was arranged by the [security services].”

Baidashvili later recanted his testimony, claiming he made it under duress.

Addressing reporters today just before entering the Tbilisi prosecutor’s office for the third time in 24 hours, he pledged to shed light on the Kakabadze incident. “Actually I don’t remember what I told prosecutors [yesterday] and how I behaved," he said. "Today I will tell the truth. I will tell what I saw and how it really happened.”

Pro-government media have presented Baidashvili as a long-time friend and close associate of the victim. But Kakabadze’s mother, Natia Amirejibi, told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service that Baidashvili reappeared just a few days ago among her son’s friends after not seeing him for years. She also denied that Baidashvili is a TV producer, saying he offered to work as a driver for her son shortly after the latter took over from a jailed journalist to host “Debates,” 202’s main political talk show.

Shalva Ramishvili, 202’s co-founder and leading anchorman, was detained on 27 August along with the channel’s general director on charges of blackmailing a lawmaker from Georgia’s ruling party.

Police say Ramishvili was apprehended after a hidden video camera filmed him allegedly receiving $30,000 from parliamentarian Koba Bekauri. Investigators claim the money was part of a larger payment demanded by the journalist to not broadcast an investigative report allegedly exposing Bekauri's illegal business activities.

Ramishvili in turn says it is Bekauri who attempted to bribe him to stop the broadcast.

Ramishvili’s detention stirred a nationwide debate on media rights and triggered accusations that the government is trying to muzzle press criticism.

Parliamentary opposition leader Davit Gamkrelizde told reporters yesterday he believed that there is a direct link between Ramishvili’s detention and the assault on Kakabadze. “This [assault] is connected to the fact that Irakli [Kakabadze] managed to thwart the authorities’ plans aimed at stopping the ‘Debates’ talk show on 202," he said. "They thought they had achieved their goals by arresting Ramishvili and [202 General Director Davit] Kokhreidze. But Irakli and his friends saved the program, thus preserving freedom of thought on 202. This obviously unnerved the authorities to such an extent that they decided to get rid of [Irakli].”

Georgian government officials deny accusations that Ramishvili’s detention has a political undertone. Instead, they suggest it may be part of broader plans to expose and eradicate alleged corruption in the media.

Be that as it may, voices have risen even from among Georgia’s ruling party questioning the police’s methods. Lawmaker Davit Zurabishvili on 30 August resigned a co-chairman of the pro-government group in parliament to protest Ramishvili’s detention.

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