Mikheil Saakashvili was a hope bearer in Georgia, but he bitterly disappointed his compatriots, including journalists. Today, after Saakashvili’s resignation, there is no censorship in Georgia, but balanced reporting remains the exception.
It is exactly 8 p.m. – the main news of the Georgian television channel “Imedi” has just begun. The journalist and presenter Levan Javakhishvili welcomes the audience and presents the topics of the evening – Georgian domestic policy, some foreign policy, culture and the weather. The private broadcaster offers the people in front of the television sets a colourful mix of topics again today.
Levan is a tall, handsome man with brown hair and green eyes who, as soon as the red studio light comes on, can turn on his smartest moderator face. Sometimes he himself can hardly believe that he is sitting here in the studio again, looking into the camera and informing the audience about the most important events in Georgia and in the world:
“Being here again is a very special feeling for me. I’ve been here since the first news broadcast in 2003. This station is my home. It simply feels like coming home. However I only came back because the owners of ´Imedi` asked me personally for it.”
In 2001 the media company “Imedi” was founded by the Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkazishvili, in 2003 TV-“Imedi” went on air – shortly before the western orientated Georgian politician and then hopeful Micheil Saakashvili took office. The young and charismatic politician succeeded President Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been overthrown by the Rose Revolution, in January 2004.
After the corrupt and politically unstable Shevardnadze era, the Georgians and with them the journalists hoped for a new era of freedom, democracy and economic upturn. As after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the nineties, they were again able to report critically and independently on the grievances in the country. A “wind of change” swept through Georgia at that time, says Levan Javakhishvili. His eyes light up and you can see that it must have been a liberated time – after all these years of repression.
“After Shevardnadze and the Rose Revolution, many people thought we would finally have a normal life here. But between 2003 and 2004 another TV station was closed. That was the first signal.”
Special unit stormed the channel “Imedi” in 2007
In 2007, the openness of “Imedi” also came to an end: the TV station had reported on the misuse of public funds by various ministries, the people in Georgia took to the streets to protest against corruption. The pressure on the president grew daily.
When the oligarch Patarkazishvili took the side of the opposition, his station fell out of favour with Saakashvili and his ruling party, the United National Movement. On 7 November 2007, a masked special unit stormed the television studio on the outskirts of the city during a live broadcast, forcing journalists in front of live cameras to stop broadcasting.
Levan Javakhishvili walks across the corridors of the media house, which is now secured with meter-high fences and cameras. In the studio where he hosted the evening news with a colleague at the time, it is now dark, cramped, and occasionally old backdrops stand around. With a fossilized face, he points up to a glazed wall through which you can look directly into the studio. There stood the masked men with their guns and stared down at them.
“We were informed via the headphones that a special unit had penetrated the station. When I realized what had happened, I said to the audience: ´Bewaffnete Men had just occupied our station “Imedi”. ` Then twelve masked people came into the studio, pointed their Kalashnikovs at us and told us to stop broadcasting.”
They were scared to death then, says Levan Javakhishvili. None of the editors, cameramen and technicians knew if they would ever come out alive again. Their phones were ringing incessantly, everyone was watching live on TV what was happening on “Imedi”. In a short speech, the editor-in-chief explained the situation to the television audience and asked for international help. The screen turned black, the program was finished.
Hours later the employees were released, a few weeks later the owner was expropriated. Investigative and independent journalism became more and more difficult in the following years. Background research was almost impossible because nobody was able or willing to provide information. If criticism occurred somewhere, only a few people were able to hear or see it because of the limited broadcast reach.
Journalists in Georgia no longer have to fear threats
It was not until the political change of power in Georgia in autumn 2012, when the Saakashvili party lost the parliamentary elections, that the oligarch family Patarkazishvili was given the “Imedi” media society again. Today, Georgia is ruled by the party alliance “Georgian Dream” of the billionaire and former Prime Minister Bidsina Ivanishvili. Under this new government and the old employer, presenter Levan Javakhishvili also returned to the spotlight. Threats, intimidation and expropriation are no longer to be feared by journalists and media companies in Georgia today.
“Today there is no censorship or other restrictions in Georgia, but we have private channels that report either for or against the government, or for or against the opposition. Many journalists do not have their own opinion. They are not free in their thinking. Although they do not have to be afraid of any pressure. Many don’t see their task in just reporting something, they want to influence politics themselves. They are simply not independent in their reporting.”
In the Liberali editorial office the keys are being hit diligently. In the modern open-plan office in the centre of Tbilisi, young and stylishly dressed women and men sit in front of their huge monitors, large photographs of demonstrations for democracy and human rights hang on the walls. The next issue of the independent and critical political magazine must be ready in a few hours.
Head of politics Irakli Absandze, a small, round and likeable man with nickel glasses and a goatee beard, discusses the last details with everyone once again. One topic of the next issue is the resistance of the Orthodox Church against a homeless shelter for homosexuals in Tbilisi. Irakli Absandze, who studied political science in Germany, says that this is exactly what “Liberali” stands for.
“We like to write about marginalized groups in society, or those who have such a danger, for example ethnic minorities, social minorities. We like to write about values that unite us with the Western world, what they are and where they come from. And we try to be as critical as possible. So that we can really perform our watcher function. Not only do we want to be a source of information for our readers, but we also want Georgian politicians to use us as a craft.”
Investigative journalists publish on the Internet
“Liberali” – the magazine with the red and white logo and a large photo on the cover is made in the eyes of the seven permanent employees and the handful of freelancers especially for the so-called decision makers in Georgia. For those who have a say in the fate of the country. Irakli Absandze itself did not join the magazine until 2012, which appeared for the first time in 2009. Before that, he worked for a private television station in the city of Poti in the west of the country for many years. Because of his critical reporting, he was bugged, threatened and interrogated during Mikhail Saakashvili’s time. Today he talks about the working conditions of journalists in Georgia:
“It’s gotten a lot better. We have air to breathe. I have the feeling that I am no longer being watched, like in Michael’s time. The mobile phone is no longer tapped. Everything I write, even critical things, doesn’t worry about my professional future. I don’t get any funny calls.”
Private television is the Goliath, against which a monthly magazine like “Liberali” can only lose. And so the investigative journalists here in the office, with their headphones in their ears and their coffee cups in front of their noses, hope above all for the effect of their well-researched stories about corrupt officials and homophobic church representatives and above all for their readers on the Internet. Because, according to the analyses, they are educated, well informed and above all young – between 18 and 45 years old. “We are read on the web”, Irakli Absandze sums up briefly. Every month 30,000 to 40,000 people click on the “Liberali” articles on the net, he says. That is exactly what Georgian journalism hopes for.
Only a few kilometres away from the Imedi editorial office, the journalist Edita Badasyan stands on Rustaweli Prospekt, the central main street of Tbilisi, in front of the shining facade of the Radison Hotel. For the Russian Internet newspaper “Caucasian Knot” she reports as a correspondent from Georgia and the entire Caucasus region. Edita criticises the self-image and work of many journalists in Georgia today. The woman, who has also worked in Germany and Russia, says that many of her colleagues are unfamiliar with careful research, separation of opinion and information and balanced reporting.
“The problem we still have here in our media landscape is that we hardly have any objective media. We have pro-government or anti-government. We hardly have anything balanced. We have very many newspapers with xenophobic statements against minorities, national, sexual and religious minorities. And these newspapers are not punished. There is criticism, but that does not matter. They can continue to print and sell. There are no penalties for those.”
Low salary and blockades in authorities
On average, a journalist in Georgia earns between 250 and 400 euros a month, while a television journalist can earn up to 500 euros – the average monthly income in Georgia is 250 euros. Many of her colleagues work for several editorial offices at the same time, she says, or do something completely different at the same time in order to feed her family. And in addition to these everyday worries, there are also the daily hurdles of research. Compared to the past, the authorities are more willing to provide information, but when it comes to mere fact-finding, they still often come up against limits:
“What we need now is really difficult. Just press releases and stuff like that. But now with archives and all that is still too much for us. You can write about anything, it’s just how you get the facts. Of course, you can think of something like a writer, but if you want to get facts, it’s a little difficult. Georgia is not such a big country, so we get a lot of information from the people. The problem is to prove all that with documents.”
Nevertheless, after years of political tension, economic misery and media repression, Georgia seems to be on the right track. Only one example of this is the possibility for journalists to obtain information about the conditions in prisons. While under President Saakashvili this was a seldom successful investigative feat – at that time it was beaten and tortured in the prisons – with the now ruling party alliance “Georgi Dream”, the new President Georgi Margwelashvili and the new head of government Irakli Garibashvili a new start in dealing with the media can also be felt. Edita says about the responsible minister, who is also new:
“He is always open, he gives all information … So what we need, about prisoners. There are always protests in prisons, some people sew their mouths shut because they protest. And yet these unpleasant things, which the ministry perhaps didn’t want to show so openly to our society. And we can really get that through PR work. In which prison this happened, why and who are these people. And before we couldn’t know anything. Well, that’s a big difference. And I can feel that some certain things have really improved.”