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NGOs in Georgia strongly condemn the smear campaign against human rights defenders in the country

Non-governmental organizations in Georgia are deeply concerned by a smear campaign against human rights defenders and NGOs which surfaced in Georgia in December 2009. We are particularly concerned by the fact that those media and political figures used sensitive topics such as the Russia-Georgia war, ethno-territorial conflicts, minorities etc., to manipulate the public and mislead them in respect of human rights defenders and their work. 
 In particular, during December 2009 media outlets, widely considered to be state-controlled or otherwise having close ties with the government, consecutively released one-sided and biased reports portraying human rights defenders as enemies and traitors of the nation working against the interests of the society. This was followed by critical statements against defenders made by political figures currently in power.
 On December 10, 2009, International Day of Human Rights, the news program of Georgian Public Broadcaster released a media report condemning Human Rights Priority’s activities related to the protection of human rights . In particular, this organization is actively and successfully involved in strategic litigation - appealing cases related to human rights violations of the IDPs and those effected by the Russia-Georgia war 2008. After exhausting local remedies Human Rights Priority appeals the cases to the European Court of Human Right.

The news item stated as if Human Rights Priority was ‘using the tragedy of war for its own benefits’. Special attention was paid to the contract between Human Rights Priority and its potential clients based on which the organization is providing free legal aid to those effected by the August war in 2008. However none of the signed contracts was presented in the media report, moreover, the report was talking about the draft of the contract which gains binding force of a contract only after the signature from both parties.

The overall tone and the content of the media report released by the Public Broadcaster on the International Day of Human Rights harshly criticized those who dare to submit a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights versus Georgia.
 On December 12, 2009 TV Company Rustavi 2 released a media report concerning the issue of hostage exchanges between Georgian and South Osetian sides. According to the report, the release of Georgian citizens detained in Tskhinvali was spoiled by the Georgian Young Lawyers Association  complaint submitted “in defendce of Osetian criminals” to ECtHR.  The statement lacked any logical and factual ground and was misleading the public. Moreover it constituted an attempt to incite anger, promote intolerance and ethnic division.
 In December TV Company Real TV prepared a one-sided and highly biased media report concerning former Public Defender Sozar Subari who is one of the most reputable people in Georgia for his human rights work carried out as a public defender. The media report portrayed Subari with highly negative connotation accusing him of being a defender of religious minorities and their rights and never the rights of orthodox Christians who represent the religious majority in the country. Recently there have also been other attempts to discredit Subari and his work carried out by him as a public defender.
 On December17 government officials and ruling party lawmakers harshly criticized investigative journalist Vakhtang Komakhidze, NGO activist Manana Mebuke and expert Paata Zakareishvili. As a reason of criticism served their visit to Tskhinvali on December 16 and meeting with “criminal” leader of breakaway region, Eduard Kokoity.

Lawmaker from the ruling party, Shota Malashkhia, e.g.,  said: “this is a disease not only for Georgia; such persons [referring to Zakareishvili] always existed during the various occupation regimes and their actions there have already been responded by the population after the de-occupation. The same will happen in case of these people [referring to those who visited Tskhinvali on December 16] as well – for some of them it will be a response through [results] in elections and for others from the moral point of view.”

Undersigned NGOs  would like to remind that:
•  “Everyone has the right to the lawful exercise of his or her occupation or profession, including the right to, offer and provide professionally qualified legal assistance or other relevant advice and assistance in defending human rights and fundamental freedoms” without any discrimination based on nationality, ethnicity or  other similar characteristics while providing such assistance.
      ( UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders)
• Furthermore, “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to            
              know, seek, obtain, receive, to publish, impart or disseminate to others views, information 
              and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms and to draw public attention 
      to those matters.”   ( UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders)
• Moreover, “restrictions placed on the exercise of the freedom of expression, assembly and association, which affect the work of human rights defenders, must not extend beyond those authorized by paragraphs 2 of Articles 10 and 11 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.” (Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on Council of   Europe on Human Rights Defenders)
 The smear campaign, examples of which were cited above, jeopardizes the work of human rights defenders in the country in general and in relation to vulnerable groups, such as IDPs, minorities, etc. in particular.

Moreover, media reports in question promote intolerance and hostility and undermine the possibilities of seeking justice and peace in the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia 2008, which led to grave and widespread human rights violations.

Absence of an independent nation-wide TV channel effectively deprives defenders and NGOs the possibility to reach out to the general public and bring their own message to them in response of the voiced accusations; thus such a campaign has a particularly destructive effect of the reputation of NGOs and defenders in Georgia.

.Bearing in mind the above stated, undersigned NGOs:

• condemn the smear campaign against the work of human rights defenders – in all cases, whether it is carried out by state agents or non-state actors
• call upon Georgian authorities to create an environment conducive to the work of human rights defenders, enabling individuals, groups and associations to freely carry out activities to promote and strive for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms
• call upon Georgian authorities to sstrictly adhere to the international principles enshrining the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders and abstain from imposing on the work of defenders/NGOs any restrictions other than those clearly authorised by national law in conformity with international standards
• call upon the international actors, including diplomatic missions and representatives of international organizations, to urge Georgian government to act in line with the UN Declaration and respect and promote the rights of defenders prescribed therein.

Signed by (in alphabetical order)

Article 42 of the Constitution
Caucasus Women’s Network
Center for Protection of Constitutional Rights (CPCR)
Egalitarian Institute
Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights
Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA)
Human Rights Center (HRIDC)
Human Rights Priority
International Center for Conflict and Negotiation (ICCN)
Public Movement “Multinational Georgia”
Ratom? (WHY?)
Studio Reporter
Union “21st Century”

Other members of the South Caucasus Network of Human Rights Defenders and NGO Coalition Civil Manifesto.

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