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Issue: 60 Section: Media Analysis Geography: USA, Russia, Central Asia Georgia Topics: Georgia; television

April 24, 2009

Forced Off-Air

ECHR rebukes Georgia for Soviet-style repression of independent TV station

by Jay Heisler

The imprisonment of two Georgian TV personalities follows a pattern of harassment – and takeover – of independent media by the Georgian government. Photo: Alexander Minza cc2.0

TBILISI, GEORGIA–In the wake of a January 27 judgment by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which strongly rebuked the Georgian government for its wrongful arrest, sham trial and inhumane imprisonment of media personalities Shalva Ramishvili and Davit Kokhreidze, controversy is spreading about the wider implications of their case, and the circumstances surrounding their arrest.

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

The story of Ramishvili and Kokhreidze echoes numerous stories of media crackdowns in Putin’s Russia. The comparison is uncomfortable for a government desperate to clean up its image, and achieve NATO membership and general Western support.

Critics allege that the 2005 arrest and imprisonment of Ramishvili and Kokhreidze was part of a successful plot—whose aim was to close a politically neutral television station and turn it into a propaganda arm of the Georgian military—engineered and executed by the Georgian Ministry of Defence, a policy group known as the “Freedom Institute,” and an elusive German businessman.

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Georgian television station TV 202, and its co-founders and shareholders Ramishvili and Kokhreidze were looking forward to a good year in 2005. 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 often publicly challenged; and “Dardubala – 2”&mdashan animated comedy program satirizing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili—was planned for the following season. The TV station's optimistic future reflected the hopes of many Georgians, who looked forward to life in a stable and democratic Western-leaning nation and a fulfillment of the promises of 2003’s Rose Revolution, which brought President Saakashvili to power.

In 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 to block the report’s screening and Ramishvili and Kokhreidze agreed on a price of US$100,000 to keep the program off the air. Although bribery is not an uncommon phenomenon in Georgia, Bekauri and the government declared this an act of blackmail and Ramishvili and Kokhreidze were arrested in their cars as they left the meeting.

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Goga Kokhreidze is a former Member of Parliament and an activist for the rights of the disabled in Georgia. He hadn't seen his brother Davit for over two months when he finally visited him in prison. He found Davit 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.”

Davit Kokhreidze was kept in a 12-bed cell with 29 occupants, where the prisoners had to take turns lying down 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-metre cell and its tiny, vermin-infested bed with another prisoner. Their “toilet” was a thin pipe directly next to their bed that was “so narrow that it was difficult for the inmates to pass urine and excrement through the hole.”

The Georgian Penitentiary Department announced after an investigation that the conditions of Ramishvili and Kokhreidze's 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, citing “inhuman and degrading” prison conditions and a trial of dubious integrity. (The European Court of Human Rights was created by the European Commission to award damages to individuals who suffered at the hands of a state. The Georgian government is not required to follow the ruling under international law.)

During their appeal hearing, the two men were kept in metal cages and surrounded by masked men with machine guns. 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. After viewing a video of the hearing, the ECHR decided the judge was openly partial—rephrasing difficult questions to the prosecutor in a leading manner and sometimes answering them himself. Of this hearing, the ECHR cited violations of Article 1, Article 3, Article 4 and Article 5 of the Convention.

Following the ECHR judgment, the government announced structural and policy changes based on the ECHR’s criticisms and paid total damages of EUR 6,000 to each defendant, as well as a joint sum of EUR 14,694 for “costs and expenses.”

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“The [trial] was against TV 202,” said Lia Mukhashavria, Ramishvili and Kokhreidze's lawyer during the ECHR case. “They wanted to close it down. 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.”

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Following their arrests, Ramishvili and Kokhreidze were approached by German businessman Hans von Sachsen-Altenburg, who offered to purchase TV 202.

But 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, whom Georgian media has alleged is the brother of the Deputy Minster of Defence. The station was given a new, pro-government management team, and, supported by the Georgian Ministry of Defence and a political advocacy organization called the Liberty Institute, was launched in September 2007 as SakarTVelo. Altenburg became the station’s manager and part of its legal team.

Little information can be found about the current shareholders and managers of SakarTVelo. Their website is under maintenance and the Ministry of Defense declined to comment on the station's ownership.

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. Liberty did not respond to repeated telephone calls and e-mails.

“I saw the contract of sale that was signed by Hans von Sachsen-Altenburg,” said former owner of TV 202 David Mapley 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. “This was obviously a set-up."

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.

“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 questions related to his background or his involvement with SakarTVelo, but he says he strongly supports the ECHR position, claiming the judgment is “a gift to the people of Georgia,” and adding, “Those with honour should resign in shame and those without honour should be fired.”

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While Kokhreidze was released in 2007 after the transfer of TV 202 to government control, Ramishvili remains behind bars. In an interview conducted with Ramishvili through his lawyer, who wrote down his responses while visiting him in prison, the message relayed was: "The president personally is interested in keeping [him] in prison to serve full time"; that he was a "very close person to the president"; and that 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 celebrated in the Western World.

Jay Heisler is a Canadian-born journalist who has worked in Sudan, the West Bank, Georgia, Northern Iraq and Lebanon. His writing has been published in Georgia Today, the Beirut Daily Star and The Dominion.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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