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Searching For The Truth In Georgia's Spy Cases

Cars carrying the four freed photographers leaves a central court in Tbilisi after a court on July 22 handed down suspended sentences of up to four years to four photographers on charges of spying for Russia.
Cars carrying the four freed photographers leaves a central court in Tbilisi after a court on July 22 handed down suspended sentences of up to four years to four photographers on charges of spying for Russia.
The recent arrests of four Georgian photojournalists on accusations of spying for Russia, naturally, provoked a scandal. But everything was resolved amazingly quickly: The photographers were arrested on July 7, and by July 22 they had already been released. All four admitted their guilt and reached a plea bargain with the government. In such cases, a court only rules on whether the agreement was indeed voluntary.

Now it is appropriate to ask: What does the photographers' case tell us about the state of Georgian democracy (society, the legal system, etc.)? Have we learned something new? Has what we already knew simply been confirmed?

The English social theorist Ernest Gellner, in a completely different context, introduced the concept of "common (or single) conceptual currency." Modern society is complex and pluralistic, and that is why it cannot function if its members don't share a common language. Gellner had in mind "language" in the common meaning of the word (he was discussing the formation of nations) but also as a distinct corpus of knowledge and rational rules. In particular, there must exist a sort of unspoken consensus on how to distinguish facts from assumptions, and on what ground can one judge, whether a given assumption should be considered plausible or not.

The photographers' case has demonstrated a profound shortage of such common conceptual currency in Georgian society. As soon as the arrests took place, two mutually exclusive versions emerged. The government's version was that two of the photographers -- one who worked directly for President Mikheil Saakashvili and one who worked for the Foreign Ministry -- used their positions to gain access to government secrets that they then, through a third photographer who worked for a European news agency, transferred to agents of Russia's secret services. Later, images of the documents in question were made public: agendas for meetings between the presidents of Georgia and Estonia, a transcript of confidential talks between the prime ministers of Georgia and Azerbaijan, and so on. The photographers were released because they admitted their guilt and because they gave the government valuable information about other agents of unfriendly security agencies.

The other version is that Georgia's dictatorial regime couldn't forgive the photographers for their images of "the bloody suppression" of "peaceful demonstrators" that happened on the night of May 26. The confessions were only extracted after "psychological pressure." (True, no one accused the authorities of torture in the conventional sense.) The fact that the journalists were quickly released was attributed to public pressure: "The bloody regime was forced to retreat."

Media Madness

How can we tell which of these versions is closer to the truth? There is an institution of rational debate wherein individuals are able to weigh the merits of various arguments in a more or less impartial environment. The place for such a discussion should be, primarily, the mass media. Some discussions did indeed take place in the Georgian media, but they usually resembled shouting matches between deaf people.

For the media, the role of obtaining information and providing a neutral environment for the collision of opinions turned out to be secondary. Media organizations instead immediately divided into two camps. The majority advocated the second theory and joined a protest campaign, and the minority mainly restricted itself to distributing official information.

Several journalists rejected accusations that they were biased and had concluded in advance that the photographers were innocent. But the logic of their actions told a different story. Demands for greater transparency, for the declassification of the case and so on were heard -- and those are the natural and legitimate efforts of journalists to do their job that you'd find in any country.

But, at the same time, journalists called for the immediate release of their colleagues (on bail, at least). At their demonstrations, they covered their eyes and ears, symbolizing their belief that the government was trying to leave the public without access to information. Newspapers were published with blank black squares bearing the notation: "Photography should have appeared here." All that is fine: but only if there are serious reasons to think that the government is creating criminal cases against innocent journalists in order to frighten others.

Full Stop?

The truth is supposed to be established in court. But thanks to the plea bargains, there will be no trial. Many government critics reject the very concept of plea bargaining, which was borrowed from U.S. practice. They argue that it reduces the transparency of the legal system and gives prosecutors too much leeway. Maybe so. In this particular case, a trial would have given another chance for an unbiased observer to judge the validity of the accusations. But practice has shown that in Georgia a trial does not always lead to clarity. Opposing sides tend to hold to their opinions even after a court has ruled.

Is it possible in this instance to arrive at a truth that the majority of rational people will accept? Hardly. But it would be a good start to bolster the space where such matters can be discussed in a way that is more or less free from political passions. The Georgian media failed to offer such space.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL