Friday, April 8, 2011

Soviet-style Repression of TV Stations in Georgia

Media Lies and More Lies: TV Media in Georgia

It's not only about transparency. The Economist and Open Society, and fellow travelers believe that if the formal things are structured like in the West, it will be a democracy in Georgia. The question of who actually owns the TV stations won't make much difference to Georgians.  It's more about keeping a democratic facade - it's to the western audience it's important to keep this secret. Here locally, it doesn't matter what crimes the government commits and when it is caught red handed - nothing happens.

Few outsiders, especially in the international community are interested in taking a closer look into the political, economic and legal environment in which the press tries to do its job in Georgia and the region. Rustavi2 and Imedi TV are considered state-controlled channels but basically all TV channels are under pressure.  Rustavi 2 and Imedi TV has lost most of their hard earned trust because of to a complete lack of independence, and this is not only with the viewing audience but media experts understand; it is clear that the vast majority of Georgian TV stations are merely mouthpieces which utter pro-governmental positions and spread lies. The US and Georgian governments have now another TV station on that channel, Sakartvelo, purely a Georgian Ministry of Defense channel; a clear message has been to all journalists in Georgia: “these guys got in trouble, so could you."

Soviet-style Repression of Independent TV Stations in Georgia

  In the wake of a January 27, 2009 judgment by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which strongly rebuked the Georgian government for repeatedly violating the rights of media personalities Shalva Ramishvili and Davit Kokhreidze, controversy is spreading about the wider implications of their case, and the circumstances surrounding their arrest. The MO of fear and stifling continues and now Georgia has few independent TV outlets.

  Critics allege that the 2005 arrest and imprisonment of Ramishvili and Kokhreidze was part of a successful plot to close a politically neutral television station and turn it into a propaganda arm of the Georgian military, one engineered and executed by the Georgian Ministry of Defense, a policy group known as the "Liberty Institute," and an elusive German businessman of dubious royal lineage whose resume also supposedly includes time as a lawyer, lecturer, and an archeologist.

  The former Soviet republic of Georgia burst onto American newscasts in August 2008 when Russian tanks came to the defense of two pro-Moscow breakaway regions and rolled within spitting distance of the capital. The short war quickly entered the rhetoric of the US presidential campaign, with both Obama and McCain calling for a tough stance on Russia and staunch support for their allies in the Georgian government.

  Behind this external fa├žade of a fragile democracy menaced by a neo-Soviet autocracy is a more complex and cynical reality. The story of Ramishvili and Kokhreidze echoes numerous stories of media crackdowns in Putin's Russia, an uncomfortable comparison for a government desperate to clean up its image and achieve NATO membership and widespread Western support.

  2005 started as a good year for the television station TV 202, and a good year for its co-founders and shareholders, Ramishvili and Kokhreidze. They had aired the first part of a documentary alleging foul play in the death of former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, they were hosting "Debates," a popular talk show in which government politicians were quite often publicly challenged, and "Dardubala - 2," an animated comedy program satirizing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, was planned for the next season. This bright future fit perfectly with the hopes of many Georgians, who looked forward to life in a stable and democratic Western-leaning nation, a fulfillment of the promises of 2003's Rose Revolution, which brought president Saakashvili to power. For Ramishvili and Kokhreidze, these hopes were soon dashed.

In August 2005, the two close friends and respected public figures drove to meet with a member of parliament, Koba Bekauri, who was the subject of an upcoming TV 202 report on corruption. Bekauri had tried relentlessly to block the report's screening, and an exchange of USD 100,000 had finally been agreed. Although bribery is not an uncommon phenomenon in Georgia, Bekauri and the government declared this to be an act of blackmail, and Ramishvili and Kokhreidze were arrested in their cars as they left the meeting.

  The European Court judgment is quite clear in its contempt as to what was next, citing "inhuman and degrading" prison conditions and a trial of dubious integrity.

  Goga Kokhreidze is a former MP and an activist for the rights of the disabled in Georgia. He didn't see his brother Davit for over two months, finally visiting him in prison and finding him pale, malnourished, and surrounded by desperate and miserable convicts. "If you are not a strong man, you are broken in this place, you go down. In Georgia it is bad, but this, in jail, this is too much."

  Kokhreidze was kept in a 12-bed cell with 29 occupants, where the prisoners had to take turns to sleep. After protesting his treatment by announcing a hunger strike, Kokhreidze was ignored, and six more prisoners were added to his cell. Ramishvili was allegedly held in a cell that had been used for solitary confinement for death row prisoners in the Soviet era. He shared the unventilated 5.65 m cell and its tiny, vermin-infested bed, with another prisoner. Their "toilet" was a thin pipe, located directly next to their bed, which was "so narrow that it was difficult for the inmates to pass urine and excrement through the hole." According to Ramishvili, their cell once filled with smoke, allegedly from a mattress fire in a neighboring cell, and they pounded against the door for up to 30 minutes before they were freed. The Georgian Penitentiary Department announced after an investigation that the conditions of their imprisonment fully complied with international standards. The ECHR disagreed, ruling that their incarceration was a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

  Their appeal hearing, during which the two men were kept in metal cages and surrounded by masked men with machine guns, was by all accounts chaotic and dysfunctional. Dozens of plain-clothes government agents filled the courtroom, arguing with families and supporters of the defendants, and visiting the judge in the deliberation room. The judge was openly partial during the hearing, rephrasing difficult questions to the prosecutor in a leading manner, and sometimes even answering them himself. The ECHR cited violations of Article 1, Article 3, Article 4 and Article 5 of the Convention.

  Following the judgment, the government announced structural and policy changes based on the ECHR's criticisms, and paid total damages of EUR 6000 to each defendant; a joint sum of EUR 14,694 for costs and expenses was to be paid.

  Simon Papuashvili, a lawyer at the Human Rights Center in Tbilisi, claims that although the government has complied with the ECHR ruling, many of their changes to the prison system have been lackluster. He cited continuing overpopulation and poor living conditions in Georgian jails, including in jails that the government had recently built in response to criticism, adding, "when the government invests large amounts of money in infrastructure that is in violation of international standards, well, that doesn't make much sense."

But the judgment against their trial and imprisonment, and the resulting domestic and international reaction, has overlooked the wider motives behind, and consequences of, Ramishvili and Kokhreidze's persecution. It has become a common assumption among families and supporters of the two men that the government imprisoned them in an effort to silence and gain ownership of their station.

  "The policy was against TV 202," said Lia Mukhashavria, their lawyer during the ECHR case, "they wanted to close it down; they arrested not only Ramishvili but Kokhreidze. Once they were imprisoned, it collapsed, and by doing that the government has now another TV station on that channel, Sakartvelo, purely a Ministry of Defence channel. They made a clear message to all journalists in Georgia: these guys got in trouble, so could you."  

  According to Goga Kokhreidze, their arrests followed a steady campaign of government harassment against TV 202, which included pressuring advertisers to withdraw support. Kokhreidze claims that since his brother was arrested, he has received harassing phone calls, and his house was broken into, as he took care of his brother's three daughters and helped his brother's legal battle. He insists that the ruling is "not enough."

  Following their arrest, Ramishvili and Kokhreidze were approached by German businessman Hans von Sachsen-Altenburg, who offered to purchase TV 202. Fearing the station, now effectively closed by their arrests, would soon be in government hands, they agreed. Altenburg, like the deal itself, looked good on paper. The last surviving member of a royal lineage, the Saxe-Altenburg line from Germany, he was a practicing lawyer who had lectured at the Southern Methodist University in Texas, and done archeological research near the Black Sea.

  But the German white knight turned out to be anything but. Prince Altenburg soon sold the station to Beka Paatashvili, a small-town Georgian pig farmer who became the station's official owner. How Paatashvili acquired the money to purchase the station has never been publicly explained, but the sale also involved Georgian businessman Kakha Ninua, who Georgian media has alleged is the brother of the Deputy Minister of Defense. The station was given a new, pro-government management team, and was launched in September 2007 as SakarTVelo, a pro-government station supported by the Georgian Ministry of Defence and a political advocacy organization called the Liberty Institute. Altenburg become the station's manager and part of its legal team, and eventually worked on the case of Ramishvili and Kokhreidze. Following this deal, Altenburg's history came under scrutiny, revealing credible evidence that his education records, his license to practice law, and his royal lineage were all fabricated.

  American journalist Jeffery Silverman spent years investigating Altenburg, and discovered that the last known member of the Altenburg dynasty had died in 1991.

  Silverman writes regularly for the Human Rights Center, and claims that the TV 202 case is indicative of the Georgian government's record on media freedom, which has been in the spotlight since the 2007 raid and closure of TV station Imedi. "In order for democracy to work it is absolutely essential to have an active, dynamic media that is not cowed into submission in the face of political threats and violence from governmental authorities."

The Imedi closure, which was followed by the station reopening with a new, pro-government spin, occurred in the aftermath of the November 7 2007 protests, now notorious in Georgia. The mass demonstrations against Saakashvili's government, reminiscent of the protests that brought him to power, were brutally crushed with tear gas, police batons, and mass arrests. This cast a shadow over Saakashvili's international reputation, a shadow that has only darkened since the August war.

  Little information is available about the current shareholders and managers of SakarTVelo TV. Their website has been under maintenance for the last few weeks. The Ministry of Defense declined to comment on any aspect of the European Court case or the TV station's ownership, and responded only by saying "the Ministry of Defence of Georgia has cooperation with TV Sakartvelo only on a contract level."

  The Liberty Institute, officially a Georgian research and advocacy organization, is seen by most Georgians as representing and enforcing American foreign policy interests. As with the station itself, very little information is publicly available about the funding and management of the Liberty Institute. Their phone number was perpetually busy or disconnected, and they have yet to respond to attempts to contact them by email. While they publicly claim to be no longer involved in the running of TV 202, Papuashvili explains that they were clearly "involved in the decision-making."

  According to Goga, who was politically active in the Rose Revolution, the Liberty Institute parted ways from many political activists after 2003, falling lockstep behind the Saakashvili government as soon as it gained power.  "Before Saakashvili, we had some meetings with the Liberty Institute, and our opinions were the same. After Saakashvili got power, our opinions were different."

  About Altenburg, Goga adds, "He must sit in jail, and I think he will. Behind Hans, I think maybe there was our government, maybe somebody else who wanted to take this frequency and make it an army channel."

  "I saw the contract of sale that was signed by Hans von Sachsen-Altenburg," said David Mapley, former owner of TV 202, about the sale of TV 202 to Altenburg, "detailing a $500,000 payment to his account at Merrill Lynch in Dallas, Texas, and $60,000 to Nana Andronikashvili in Georgia. I contacted the lawyer who handled the sale, who works as a partner in the same firm as Dimitri Kitoshvili, who at the time was Chairman of the Georgian National Communications Commission."

"This was obviously a set-up," he adds. "I told the lawyer that I was the actual owner. He pointed out that under Georgian law, since Hans was my trustee, he could sell the company and he believed he had legal title. I then found that Hans had not paid any for any shares at all, and that I was the 100% shareholder."

  Mapley has given all relevant files to the FBI for an investigation. He adds that he contacted Merrill Lynch to freeze Altenburg's assets, and they did not respond, which essentially amounts to "money laundering," if the firm knowingly decided to hold and thus "clean" money that had been attained illegally.

  "The whole [Georgian] government is in on the take! It is significant that I wrote to Prime Minister Noghaideli for help, and he orchestrates stealing the station!"

  Altenburg refuses to comment on any questions related to his background, or his involvement with SakarTVelo, although he says he strongly supports the ECHR position, claiming the judgment is "a gift to the people of Georgia," adding "those with honor should resign in shame, and those without honor should be fired."

  Under the ever-growing swirl of accusations and protest, the case is far from over for Ramishvili and Kokheidze. While Kokheidze was released in 2007, after the transfer of TV 202 to government control, Ramishvili remains behind bars. In an interview conducted through his lawyer, who wrote his responses while visiting him in prison, "he has a 6.5 cm stone in his kidney and suffers of pain. There is little done to help him on this. He needs an operation and adequate medical treatment is not provided to him."

  Ramishvili added "that the President personally is interested in keeping him in prison to serve full time. He was very close person to the President, and he wants to publicize private materials on the president, what he personally knows about him. But he will do this after his release."

  Meanwhile, international aid pours into Georgia, and its progress toward democracy is hailed in the Western World. Simultaneously, world attention is starting to increase toward Georgia's record on press freedom, especially since the 2008 report from US NGO Freedom House dropped Georgia's "civil liberties rating" from 3 points to 4, citing "the circumscription of media and expression."

  "Press freedom is one area of particular interest to us," said Stephen Guise of the US Embassy in Tbilisi, adding "We also pay particular attention to all cases where there are allegations against governments."

  Guise said the US government's official response could be seen in the State Department's annual report on Human Rights, to be released in March, 2008. When asked about the July 27 ruling, which had technically been decided in late 2007, Guise said, "Because it was not decided in 2008, we will not discuss the verdict."

  The 2007 US Human Rights report on Georgia lists "reports of government pressure on the judiciary and the media." "Throughout the year, there were accusations by NGOs, independent analysts, and journalists that high-ranking government officials and opposition politicians exercised some influence over editorial and programming decisions through their personal connections with news directors and media executives. There were scattered reported incidents of actual or incited physical abuse of journalists by local government officials and by opposition politicians. Some individuals claimed to western monitors that they were afraid to criticize the government publicly or by telephone for fear of reprisal."

-- - Does exactly what it says on the tin

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