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Disinformation: State Policy or Artificial Escalation of Ethnic Discord?

Irma Berishvili

For a long time I was planning to prepare this article but having read the final report of the Secretary General of the UN I decided to offer my letter to the readers in this way. I hope I will receive some results from it and then I will not have to publish this information in the mass media.

Ban Ki Moon wrote in his report about the Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict and in that report he said that disinformation and incorrect interpretation of the facts aggravate the tense relationship between the parties. Accordingly, both parties should refrain from a policy of disinformation and incorrect interpretation of facts.

God will bless Ban Ki Moon because Georgian TV-Companies have broadcast so much false information about Abkhazia that somebody should have protested it. And the most important thing is that not me, an ordinary journalist, started to complain about it but that the Secretary General did. However, having considered my ten-year experience as a journalist when most of my articles were about the lives and problems of ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia, if I mention my three secret, illegal visits to Sukhumi, Gudauta, Tkvarcheli, Ochamchire and Akhali Atoni in 2001-2002 and my current visits in the villages of the Gali district, I can freely declare that I have even more right than Ban Ki Moon to speak about the disinformation promulgated about Abkhazia. I think people can trust me.

I will start with the disinformation about the situation in the conflict zone that was promulgated before and during elections.

Disinformation N 1

I think everybody remembers the information broadcast by national TVstations in the middle of December, 2007. According to the information reported ethnic Georgians from the Gali district were prohibited from informing people about the elections; activists of the National Movement were oppressed and posters of Mikheil Saalashvili were torn off.

Everybody knew from the very beginning that it was impossible to open election HQs of the presidential candidates in the Gali district and that nobody could lead pre-election campaign there. Thus, nobody in the district tried to do the campaign and to start demonstrations in support of any candidates. So, the Abkhaz people could not have prohibited Georgians fromdoing what they did not do in any case.

Which incident was widely reported by national TVstations that misled many people?

Let’s tell the story in detail: Do you remember the old, rusty memorial from which the posters of Saakashvili were torn off? Do you remember the empty building with large windows from which a stranger in military uniform tore off the posters? Do you remember a small wooden booth on which Saakashvili’s poster was put up and a woman was kissing it pationately? Everybody was excited by these facts.

And do you think everything happened in the Gali district? If you do, I have to disappoint you and tell you that they were recorded in the village of Zedaetseri in the Zugdidi district. These scenes were staged on purpose. Zedaetseri is located between Zugdidi and Kvari (the same as between Zugdidi and Mestia (Svaneti region)) and has no connection with the Gali district. That rusty memorial has been in the center of Zedaetseri since the Soviet regime and is in honor of the soldiers who died during the Patriotic War. The building with large windows once was a culture house, a canteen for workers and a department store, altogether. As for the strange soldier, residents of Zedaetseri say this person was brought to their village specially dressed for the purpose. In addition to that, after the TVitem was released somebody told the film crew that the soldier was wearing a Georgian and not a Russian uniform. So, several days later, the same TVitem was a bit changed and then released. Instead of Georgian soldiers we saw Russian peacekeepers who removed posters from the wall. The rest was the same. They did not change anything about the woman kissing the photo of Saakashvili. That woman, Nanuli, really lived in the Gali district, though 15 years ago. After displacement she bought a house in Zedaetseri and only in particular cases does she manage to visit her native district.

As I found out, on that day she was pasturing her cow in the field when people with microphones and TVcameras met her and asked her to take part in the filming. Initially she refused but then she was convinced that it could not do any harm to anybody; they promised to speak only positive things and to show the village too. So, finally the woman agreed. Then she was asked to say in front of the camera that Abkhazian people prohibited her from crossing the Enguri Bridge and voting for Saakashvili; and she so said. Then she was asked to say that despite all these difficulties she would cross the administrative border and vote for Saakashvili. Mrs. Nanuli said what she was asked. Finally she was asked to kiss the poster on the wall and the woman did it too; then she went home. Afterwards, the film-crew recorded Tornike Kilanava, the Gali district governor, who confirmed that “Abkhaz people threatened the ethnic Georgians in the Gali district” as if he had witnessed it. It was not his first and final comment on a staged incident in the district. In most cases, TV companies provide false information about Abkhazia; however, the legitimate governor of the Gali district repeat the text dictated by the correspondent as exactly as Mrs. Nanuli did. 

Let us admit that a journalist is not clever enough to realize what the outcome of disinformation can be for the state and ethnic Georgians who live in the conflict zone; however, governmental officials and the Gali district administration should realize it. We hope at least somebody will answer these questions.

 Regarding r the incident in Zedaetseri village, as a result of the TV Company and officials at least some of the people who had not been to Samegrelo, if not the entire Georgian population, were deceived.

After many people and the Parliament started complaining about the violations by the Abkhazian side, national TV channels stopped bothering us with disinformation. However, during the previous days of the presidential elections this topic was activated and a bit of updated information was reported from Zedaetseri. In this scene IDPs from Zedaetseri and Tsalenjikha took part. Among them was a person who works as a taxi-driver in Zugdidi and took the film crew to Zedaetseri by his car on January 3, 2008. His surname is Tsimintia. However, a “clever” correspondent changed his surname and introduced him as Jalaghonia. Tsimintia-Jalaghonia informed the Georgian people that the Abkhaz administration threatens him and his relatives and prohibits them from crossing the Enguri Bridge to take part in the elections and that the Abkhaz side prohibits him and his family from voting for Saakashvili. He said the roads were blocked but despite that people would go to the polling stations through roundabouts. On the next day we saw Georgian people going to the polling stations though those roundabouts.

Disinformation N 2

On June 4-5, 2008 several national TVchannels showed people with hats and scarves with the number 5 on them secretly going along “roundabouts” to vote for Saakashvil in a destroyed building in a way the Abkhaz side could not detect. We had to suppose that it was the “roundabout” mentioned by Tsimintia-Jalaghonia. However, the destroyed building had no connections with Abkhazia because it was a tea-factory in the past and it is a mound of ruins in the village center. The IDPs moving along the roundabouts are IDPs residing in the building of a kindergarten in Zedaetseri (who go to the Gali district for various events like wedding, funeral) and residents of the Sachitanao settlement.

Disinformation N 3

On the Election Day we saw a young man crossing the pure water of the Enguri River to take part in the elections. Journalists said that an ethnic Georgian from the Gali district had to sacrifice himself to vote. However, who knows that the Enguri River can never be pure in any season of the year and nobody can cross it without wetting the trousers. If people in other districts knew it, they could easily guess it. To tell the truth, I personally could not recognize the place but villagers told me it was an artificial channel between Zedaetseri and Rukhi and it is called “Rukhi Channel”. There is one more important issue in the TVitem – Ethnic Georgians were prohibited from voting for Saakashvili in the Gali district and roads were blocked for this purpose. Hearing this information a person would have an impression that the Abkhazian people were supporting Georgians who were going to vote for other candidates.

The most important issue is that on January 5, the Election Day, and on the previous days the Abkhazian people did not block the Enguri River or other part of the administrative border. On January 1 my relatives crossed the border and arrived in the Samegrelo region from the village of Pakhulani in the Tsalenjikha district without any problems; they took part in the elections and returned back on January 8 without any problems. On the Election Day, although Tornike Kilanava and Paata Shamugia, coordinator of the Gali district legitimate administration, claimed the border was closed, ethnic Georgian residents of the Gali district moved along the bridge very easily though very rarely. One of them explained to me that more people wanted to cross the border but having heard the information on TV they were afraid to leave the district. “Nobody prohibited us from crossing the border. However, Abkhaz border policemen warned us not to tell incorrect information to Georgian journalists; if we do, we will really face those problems in the district after going back,” said a young man from the Gali district who crossed the Enguri Bridge on January 5. He added that regional correspondents of various national TV-channels used to meet people coming from the Gali district and requested them to say in front of the cameras what they correspondents had dictated. After that, the Gali district administration used to make comments on their statements. Long before, journalists started to interview people in some other place and not on the Enguri Bridge.

Appearently, ethnic Georgians from the Gali district understood they were damaging themselves by obeying the orders of journalists and now they do not repeat the dictations of the journalists. Consequently, journalists go to Zedaetseri to record people. In Zedaetseri there are destroyed buildings, a rusty memorial, half-dried palms and an empty shop-building with Russian inscriptions on it. Because of these circumstances our honorable colleagues think they will create an illusion of Abkhazia and of the Gali district. However, today, it is almost impossible for a Georgian journalist to go to the Gali district with camera and microphone because they have promulgated much disinformation about the district and damaged ethnic Georgians there.

According to my information, officials of the Abkhaz administration of the Gali district had a very sharp reaction to similar disinformation and punished ethnic Georgians in the district. Then they also got used to the activities of journalists and no longer get annoyed with them. However, they laugh at us.

I talked with a resident of a village in the Gali district. Initially I had to convince him that I was not one of those journalists who created problems for them. He started talking very rudely with me having heard my profession.

“Who orders you to promulgate so much false information; don’t you understand that it complicates our lives here. Those who are still displaced and received 14 GEL as allowance were kicked out of their temporary shelters; and now you want to compel Abkhazians to evict us from here too” an ethnic Georgian told me, a Georgian journalist. He added that not a single house of Georgian people was burned in the Gali district as was reported by Georgian TV Channels.

“Abkhazian people did not burn any house lately and I do not know where journalists recorded that about those houses.”

I do not want anybody to think I am protecting Abkhazian criminals. Just the opposite, since I am fully aware of the problem, I think much shall be written, said and loudly stated about the topic but we must not tell lies.

We should say that ethnic Georgian children are forced to learn subjects from Russian books in the schools of the Gali district; and if a pupil cannot understand maths or botany the teacher has to explain the lesson in Megrelian dialect. The Georgian language is a foreign language in this district. Georgian people are prohibited from speaking Georgian at various events; they have to speak in Russian, Abkhazian or Megrelian. Local people have to take Abkhazian passports instead Georgian ones. Georgian young men are recruited in the Abkhazian army. The rights of ethnic Georgians are violated everyday; smuggling and other problems are rife in the Gali district. These are the issues that must be raised by our TV channels and authorities. It will not be a surprise for the international society that nobody would have allowed Georgian people to shout “Misha is cool” in the Gali district during the election campaign.

I will tell you one more disinformation

About three months ago, one of the national TV-stations reported that Abkhaz frontier policemen insulted a Georgian man who was crossing the Enguri Bridge and died of heart attack there.  Tornike Kilanava confirmed this information. The next day I learned that the dead man was an IDP from the Gali district a famous and respected person named Roland Shonia whom I knew very well. He was the director of the Industrial College in Achigvara (Abkhazia) for many years and half of Abkhazia knew him.Hee had a perfect relationship with Abkhazpeople so he had never faced problems when crossing the administrative border. He had heart problems and on that day, he was going to Gali from Zugdidi for some business even though he had felt bad since the morning. As soon as he got off the bus on the bridge, he said he was feeling bad. Abkhaz policemen made him lie on the bench and asked other people to help him. They called an ambulance but Roland Shonia died before doctors came. Journalists and legitimate authorities of the Gali district created a sensation and blamed Abkhaz frontier police for his death. I am asking again, will similar activities lead us to the reconciliation and trust-building or will Georgian journalism benefit from similar disinformation? Today, people in Samegrelo and Abkhazia consider that journalists are liars and people who can do anything if paid money.

I do not want it to be like that, I am ashamed of it

Journalists assume serious civil and state responsibilities during their activities. So today nobody should need to doubt about our professionalism and competence, about our cleverness and self-esteem.

For this purpose I have written this letter. I want you to know that I can say even more but this time I do not want to bother you. I just ask one thing of you:

If you think that I am mistaken and the abovementioned facts are not part of state policy, please believe me I will not complain about similar misdoings in future and will suggest that my colleagues do the same.

If you agree that my story has nothing to do with state policy and it is dirty disinformation, then let’s condemn similar facts together and fight for the establishment of such professional standards that will support the reconciliation of the Georgian and Abkhaz people.

But if you neither agree nor disagree with me, there is only one way out. I will have to publish this letter in many media sources and please don’t blame me for anti-state thinking and treason.

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