Georgian Election Spotlight I


Georgian Election Spotlight  is your source for weekly analysis of everything election related. Our media and election experts will break down the week’s most important developments and offer succinct analyses of Georgia’s nuanced political issues.

Today, we’re covering the state of media freedom, the Communications Commission’s decision to grant far-right Alt-Info national broadcaster statusthe recent massive leak of Security Service files, and the ruling party’s boycott of critical media.

Journalists face safety concerns amid a deteriorating media environment

Despite the fact that Georgia’s media system can be described as pluralistic, increasing polarization and partisanship in recent years has contributed to an increasingly hostile media environment. Journalists face daily challengesincluding physical and verbal abuse, psychological pressure, discrimination, denigration, and smear campaigns- both offline and online.

On July 5 and 6, violent, far-right homophobic groups in Tbilisi attacked activists and media representatives at an unprecedented scale. The attack, which Reporters without Borders described as a  “major setback for press freedom in Georgia,” resulted in the injury of more than 50 media professionals from 10 media outlets. The perpetrators, who initially gathered to rally against the Tbilisi Pride March (which was eventually cancelled due to security concerns), targeted journalists deliberately, assaulted them physically, and smashed equipment to prevent them from carrying out their journalistic activities.

Among those assaulted on July 5 was TV Pirveli cameraman Aleksandre (Lekso) Lashkarava, who was severely beaten and required surgery as a result of his injuries. On July 11, Lashkarava was found dead in his home. In the following days, more than 100 media organizations appealed to the wider international community to watch the investigation closely and hold the Georgian government to account. Despite the fact that Lashkarava’s cause of death is still unknown, the Ministry of Interior has speculated that he died of a drug overdose- an accusation that has garnered widespread condemnation from civil society organizations and the media.

Despite advance warning that violent groups were planning an attack on July 5, the government failed to mobilize adequate police forces. In a July 5th  statement, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili did not call on the perpetrators to refrain from aggression but instead asked the organizers of Tbilisi Pride to abstain from marching on Rustaveli Avenue to avoid “civil confrontation.” Only on July 6 did he call for an investigation and condemn the violence. 

Photos show the injuries inflicted on numerous media representatives on July 5

Photos show the injuries inflicted on media representatives during the July 5 attack.  Source: Media Checker

This attack was part of a wider trend that involves a deteriorating media environment and impunity for crimes against journalists. While Article 154 of the Georgian Criminal Code does criminalize unlawful activities that prevent journalists from carrying out their work, prosecutors rarely apply this article when investigating crimes against media representatives. 

In recent years, there have been numerous attacks against media representatives that have gone largely unpunished. Transparency International Georgia has compiled a list of attacks that have occurred just in the last year since the parliamentary elections. The Media Advocacy Coalition, comprised of 16 NGOs that are working to improve the media environment in the country, has called on the government to refrain from aggressive attitudes against the media and fully investigate violence against media representatives. 

Quotable: The U.S. Ambassador’s statement on the failure of the Georgian Prime Minister to properly respond to the violence: 

… we would look to the Prime Minister to play a leading role in calming a situation where violence is being used and condemning this violence against Georgian citizens, certainly against journalists. So, it was disappointing that we didn’t see a more forceful leadership role on those days.

The Communications Commission has granted far-right Alt-Info permission to broadcast nationally

The Georgian Communications Commission  announced on September 9 that the media organization would be granted national broadcaster status.

This announcement has caused great concern in light of the fact that journalists and hosts at Alt-Info used violent and hateful language, mobilized the crowd, and led the violent attacks on July 5. A Publika documentary based on open sources showcased the mobilizing efforts aired on Alt-Info’s channel in the days leading up to the attack. The Media Development Foundation also found that the channel’s hosts disseminated pro-Kremlin messages and called on the public to rally against “Western colonizers” in the days following the July violence.

Publika documentary:

Video: How 5th of July was organized and executed  Source: Publika.ge

The prosecutor’s office questioned the founders and hosts of Alt-Info, although no further actions were taken. On September 6, the Public Ombudsman of Georgia appealed to the General Prosecutor’s office to launch a criminal investigation into Zurab Makharadze, a  talk show host at Alt-Info, for organizing group violence on July 5.

The Communications Commission initiated an administrative inquiry into Alt-Info’s actions in the days around July 5 and 6 but did not examine the alleged call for violence by the channel’s hosts. Instead, the regulator sanctioned the media company for obscenity and released it from further liability.

Alt-Info’s Facebook page was previously removed in October of 2020 for suspected coordination of inauthentic behavior and its webpage was suspended twice in July of this year for disseminating abusive content.

Quotable: Media Rights’ statement on the decision of the Communications Commission:

“…the Communications Commission’s administrative proceedings in the case of Alt-Info were formal and superficial”

The ruling party’s members are refusing to engage with critical media

In the run-up to the coming elections, many Georgian Dream government officials and candidates are refusing to engage with critical media organizations.

The incumbent Tbilisi Mayor and Georgian Dream nominee, Kakha Kaladze, has stated that he is ready to participate in pre-election debates only on the Georgian Public Broadcaster and refuses to take part in the debates with four other channels: TV Mtavari, TV Pirveli, TV Formula and Kavkasia.

On July 17, the Prime Minister’s press service did not invite multiple TV channels to cover a public event that the Prime Minister was attending, stating that the “Prime Minister believes that Mtavari Arkhi, TV Pirveli and TV Formula crossed all the red lines, they represent a particular political party, are financed and directly managed by Mikheil Saakashvili and his radical forces and are involved in political campaigns against the Prime Minister.”

Boycotts of the critical and opposition-leaning media have been an issue for several years, affecting citizens’ access to information and resulting in sanctions for broadcasters because of their inability to hold pre-election debates with all major candidates (a mandate of the election code).

Quotable: Media Advocacy Coalition’s statement on Georgian Dream’s refusal to engage with critical media organizations:

“Illegal restriction on the coverage of a public event with the PM’s participation violates both the media's right to carry out its professional duties and the public's access to information about an event of public interest.”

Massive leak exposes abuse of surveillance tools by the State Security Service

On September 13, media organizations broke the news of a massive leak of files belonging to the State Security Service. The alleged leak contains about 60,000 files and includes reports on the heads of diplomatic missions, members of the clergyjournalists, representatives of civil society, and school principals. Several journalists have verified the authenticity of their conversations with clerical figures.  

On September 14, the prosecutor’s office announced that it had launched an investigation into the leak and the State Security service called on the media and politicians to refrain from disseminating the “inaccurate and unverified” information. Following news of the leak, Prime Minister Gharibashvili accused the United National Movement party of provocation. In another statement, he suggested that his predecessor and current leader of the “For Georgia” party, Giorgi Gakharia, may have been behind the leak.

In August of 2021, another leak of secretly recorded materials revealed that journalists, public figures, politicians, and businesspeople had all been subject to wiretapping. Several journalists confirmed the authenticity of conversations publicized by TV station Mtavari Arkhi.

These leaks come in the wake of a controversial new amendment to the Law of Georgia on Information Security that was adopted by parliament in June 2021. The amendment grants the Operational–Technical Agency (OTA), an organization under the supervision of the State Security Services, full authority to access the information systems of the executive, legislative, and judicial authorities as well as the telecommunications sector. In addition, the law entitles the OTA to indirect access to personal and commercial information.

Civil society organizations have long resisted these amendments, warning of the risks related to the State Security Service’s unimpeded control of Georgia’s information system and its potential to be used for political manipulation.

THINGS TO KNOW THIS WEEK

1. The Media Advocacy Coalition has released a report detailing the events of July 5 and 6.  It includes information about those involved in planning and executing the assault on media representatives and the results of the ongoing investigations. 

2. On September 14, ISFED released its first interim report on pre-election social media monitoring.  Make sure to check our next newsletter for a link to the English version of the report.

3. On September 15, footage aired by Mtavari Arkhi TV showed a confrontation between its camera crew and Georgian Dream representatives at a party office in the town of Kareli. The altercation resulted in the injury of cameraman Levan Ablotia after he was allegedly pushed from the office’s balcony. 

4. The Georgian Democracy Initiative (GDI) has released a report outlining the violations of LGBTQ+ activists and media representatives' rights in the days surrounding July 5 and 6. 

Stay tuned for next week’s democracy edition.

 

This newsletter is sponsored by Open Society Georgia Foundation and developed in cooperation with our civil society partners.