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The Target of the Georgian Government Freedom of Speech

April 14, 2004

The Target of the Georgian Government: Freedom of Speech

Hunting season has begun in Georgia, and the new government holds freedom of speech at gunpoint.

The new government is building a democratic state by eradicating freedom of speech. The government has been exercising “painless” pressure on freedom of speech. TV stations ("Mze" and "Rustavi2")cancelled Inga Grogolia’s program “Gamis Mzera” without any logical explanation, and replaced Eka Khoperia’s “Night Show” with another program where no debates take place. Authorities forced the cancellation of several publications from the Omega Group, and have been pressuring the TV Company “Iberia”. The government also cancelled Gomiashvili’s program “Tema” (“The Topic”), on TV Channel “Imedi”, after he made serious allegations against the law enforcement system. The cancellation clearly upset Gomiashvili, who does not deny that the government cancelled his program, although he will not make any other comments. The TV Company “Ninth Channel” also ceased operations for no apparent reason.

In addition to simply canceling unwelcome programming, the government has attacked freedom of the press in other ways.  The legal proceedings between the “Tavisupali Gazeti” (the Independent Newspaper) and Zurab Zhvania provide one clear example. Prime Minister Zhvania has asked for 5,000 GEL, an amount large enough to endanger the existence of the newspaper.

Recently, we interviewed the editor-in-chief of the Tavisupali Gazeti, Tamuna Lepsveridze.

- The article in question referred to LTD Madneuli, the Georgian Railway, the Georgian Football Federation, and the relationship between Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and ongoing activities involving these organizations. There was nothing in the article meriting a law suit. The articles publication simply coincided with the period before the president’s inauguration, when the role Zhvania would play in the new government had not yet been decided. The purpose of the article was to examine the decision-making process, not to tarnish Zhvania’s reputation.

We expected to lose the case, and such a penalty from judge Shalva Kvaratskhelia was clearly unjustified. But I repeat that we had no doubt about losing the first case. 

What was the reason for this attitude?

- Before the trial had even begun, I obtained information (through contacts with numerous lawyers), that Kvaratskhelia would fully comly with the Zhvania's request. Only a few judges in Georgia are not controlled, directly or indirectly, by the government. The government completely controls Kvaratskhelia. We have numerous materials about Kvaratskhelia’s suspicious court decisions. His record raises serious doubts about his competency. The Justice Ministry currently has several complaints of disciplinary violations committed by Kvaratskhelia on file.

Do you think the government exercised pressure to ensure a favorable court decision in this case?

- I am confident that Zurab Zhvania did not phone Kvaratskhelia to tell him what decision he should make. Kvaratskhelia already knows how to please those in power. However, it’s worth noting that Zhvania always emphasized his status as the Prime Minister. 

Can you tell us about specific complaints you have in this case?

- In every civilized country with impartial rule of law, the proper authorities would investigate the facts indicated in the artice, and if an accusation was proved to be false then the case would be brought to court. During this legal process, it did not even occur to Kvaratskhelia to suggest making a deal with Zhvania before the trial started. Furthermore, the application itself includes only a few sentences and phrases from the article, not the article in its entirety, which is absolutely unjust and unlawful. The court failed to consider the article in total, not just its separate parts. In addition, I was curious to know what kind of psychological damage had been inflicted on Zhvania. Did he feel bad? Was he taken to the hospital? Did he receive any medication? Was he unable to go to work? His attorney could not answer my questions. I also read to the court Zhvania’s answer to a question posed by MP Archil Gogelia at a parliamentary session. Only a month he supposedly suffered such trauma, he could not even remember the name of the newspaper against which he had brought the law suit. Zhvania’s attorney explained this by saying that his client seemed to be absent-minded.

The only evidence they provided against us was a videotape on which an advertisement on “Rustavi 2” for this issue of our paper was recorded. They charged us with deliberately emphasizing this article, although three other articles were mentioned in addition to the one about Zhvania. Since we felt that the subject matter in the article was interesting, we decided to put the title in the ad. When pressed for details, Zhvania’s attorney seemed to have trouble remembering exactly what was recorded on the tape.

The law on advertisement states that if a TV Company considers an advertisement to be humiliating or disrespectful, the company has the right to refuse from broadcasting it. Rustavi 2 could have done this, but they did not.

The court did not comply with your request to call Lezhava and Curtis as witnesses. Why not?

- Lezhava has been working in Baku, and it was difficult to find him. Curtis was equally difficult to find. In spite of the fact that a criminal case has been brought against him, Curtis has allegedly been traveling in different countries, including Australia, and sometimes in Georgia. However, we still managed to find out their contact information, and introduced them to the court, but the judge accused us of failing to ensure the presence of witnesses at the trial. As far as I know, it is the court’s duty to ensure that required witnesses appear in court, not the litigants.

What tools will you use to fight in the appellate court?

- We deliberately did not use very many tools in the first case. We may ask for a third party mediator. The situation during the first trial was such that it was no use to take decisive measures. I’m not trying to be insulting, but the way the first trial was conducted was shameful.

Will the amount of money awarded by the judge endanger the existence of your newspaper?

- The judge did not even take an interest in this issue. Kvaratskhelia considered the amount of money reasonable. How did he determine that this was a reasonable amount? Maybe because paying exactly this “reasonable” amount will make it impossible to the newspaper, and would put it out of business? Kvaratskhelia did not even make any inquiries about the circulation of the newspaper, its estimated revenues, or whether the inflicted amount of money would likely cause force it into bankruptcy.

5,000 GEL might be considered reasonable for a newspaper with a circulation of 100,000 or more, but for a small newspaper that has been in existence for less than a year, this amount is extremely high. This “reasonable” amount was specifically designed to cause us serious problems with continuing our work.

We faced a similar suit from Akaki Chkhaidze, the former head of the Georgian Railway. However, Chkhaidze himself dropped the law suit because his honor and respect was more valuable to him than 5 000 GEL. It should be mentioned that Chkhaidze’s law suit was far more civilized, and was conducted in a calm reasonable fashion.

Has the government attempted to intimidate you?

- Before bringing the case to court, two people claiming to represent the Georgian Orthodox church were calling our office ten times a day saying that they wanted to publish an article. They wanted to know about the circulation of the newspaper, its lobbyists, etc. I found out later there these people are not affiliated with the Georgian Orthodox church. Most likely, they were government officials pretending to be members of the church to get information. In addition, the government made another more obvious attempt to pressure us when Avto Pavlenishvili, the Deputy Chief of the President’s press centre and Zhvania’s personal press attaché, demanded that I go to the State Chancellery to speak about the article. Of course, I did not go. The government also made attempts to turn other newspapers against us, but they failed.

Is freedom of speech becoming more restricted in Georgia, and is the government exerting serious pressure on the media?

- One good legacy leftover from Shevrednadze’s rule was freedom of expression. Today, the government is exerting significant pressure on the mass media. The programs of Inga Grigolia and Eka Khoperia were closed, as well as the program “Tema” of Gomiashvili, who does not even deny the government’s involvement. Secretary of the National Security  Council Vano Merabishvili suggested to Nato Chkheidze, the leader of TV Company “Iberia”, that she should fire anchorwoman Luba Eliashvili. Channel 9 was closed. According to one version, the government  offered to sell state-owned Channel 1 to former Channel 9 owner Bidzina Ivanishvili. He refused the offer. Journalists are frequently sacrificed to business and political interests. This should be called pressure, shouldn’t it? If this continues, we will fail to have freedom of speech, fail to have freedom of the press, and fail to have a democratic state.