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Reckless Actions of the President’s Representative in Shida Kartli

10.06.2005
Reckless Actions of the President’s Representative in Shida Kartli


The President’s representative is destroying the credibility of the government and undermining the society’s trust The media and freedom of press are under serious pressure in Shida Kartli. All materials that get into the press and mass media there go through a censor – Mikheil Karelil. Those journalists trying to objectively cover the situation in this region are often intimidated by the local governments, including criticism from Mikheil Kareli, and they become targets of threats and pressure, frequently losing their jobs. There is an obvious tendency in the region to divide journalists into two categories:  the desirable and undesirable. The undesirable journalists are the correspondents of “Rustavi 2”--Giga Aphtsiauri, his spouse, the journalist for channel “Mze” Natia Omadze, the journalist of the newspaper “Akhali Versia” Saba Tsicikashvili, reporters for newspaper “Khalkhis Gazeti,” and others.
 
The relations worsened between ‘Akhali Versia’ journalist Saba Tsicikashvili and the governor of Shida Kartli, Mikhil Khareli, when the journalist issued a series of articles blaming the governor for misuse of power. These articles concerned Khareli’s business interests in the big business of smuggled contraband. The Tsicikashvili also mentioned in the article that relatives of Mikhail Khareli and Irakli Okhruashvili could not agree on how to divide this “business,” and a conflict erupted between them.

The journalist emphasized material about suspicious financial sources which were transferred to the governor’s fund, the amount of which was colossal. Various private and juridical entities transferred large sums of money to the governor’s fund, despite their own less-than-wealthy financial state. The journalist posed several questions about what motivated these firms to transfer such large sums and suggested that, perhaps, Khareli used blackmail or extortion.

“Mikhil Khareli embezzles money from small entrepreneurs in Shida Khartli, and by means of blackmail and threats accumulates his own funds.  In cases of defiance, he threatens his victims by “score settling”, even by arresting. Those who paid money preserved their firms; those who refused were arrested,” said Saba Tsicikashvili, adding that he personally knows the director of the Gori Market, Gemal Tsiklauri, who was sentenced to four months preliminary detention because he refused to hand the market over to the governor.

When Tsicikashvili’s critical articles came to light, Mikhil Khareli began to call the journalist and threaten him in order to get him to stop writing about these dealings.  Tsicikashvili was removed from the post of the editor of the local channel “Trialeti,” an occurrence the journalist links to Khareli, but the governor continued to call to the channel’s office demanding his complete dismissal from the channel. He also contacted the head of the newspaper “Akhali Versia” and demanded Tsicikashvili’s withdrawal, but because he was not able to prove the falsity of documentation the journalist had cited against Khareli, the paper’s head refused to fire Tsicikashvili..
 
The conflict reached its climax in the village Uphlistsikhe where Tsicikashvili came to highlight a raging flood in the village, but Mikhail Khareli prevented him from entering the village and abused him, with the governor’s guards forcing him out of his car. This event was witnessed by villagers and journalists who were there at the time.

According to Saba Tsicikashvili, Khareli gets rid of undesirable journalists, even from the local mass media, simply by complaining to the heads of the channels and newspapers. He said that the government does its best to make the truly critical journalists stop their activities.  Tsicikashvili also stated that journalists encounter a lot of problems from local authorities as well, including not cooperating with disseminating public information and attempting to isolate journalists.

If the article issued in a paper or the information highlighted by a channel is too critical for him to be desirable or acceptable, Khareli does not hide his displeasure: he threatens the journalists and uses psychological pressure against them.

Correspondent for “Rustavi 2” Goga Aphtsiauri stopped working there after he brought out information that incurred Khareli’s indignation. The matter concerned a gift of fertilizer to agrarian residents of South Osetia several months ago during a time when Osetians refused to receive any help from the Georgian side.  Aphtsiauri highlighted this story on “Rustavi 2,” and the governor personally criticized the journalist’s reporting and expressed his displeasure to him.

The governor also used pressure against Natia Omadze, the correspondent of the channel “Mze,” when she switched with her husband Goga Aphtsiauri for a live commentary including comments about the movement of smuggled contraband in Shida Khartli. The Shida Kartli’s bureau of “Mze” was closed after Saba Tsicikashvili shot footage which showed that contraband was being sold in one of Gori’s supermarkets.  The supermarket is owned by relatives of Khareli. The journalist emphasized the governor’s business interests in this piece, triggering Mikhail Khareli’s indignation.   The bureau of “Mze” in Shida Khartli was subsequently shut down. 

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