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Abkhaz Media Fear Free Speech Under Threat

Journalist’s conviction viewed as a warning to critics ahead of presidential elections.
By Anaid Gogoryan
The conviction of a journalist for libelling Abkhazia’s president, Sergei Bagapsh, has raised concerns for the future of media freedom in the republic.



Abkhazia, recognised as independent by Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela but otherwise considered part of Georgia, holds presidential elections in December. Observers fear the prosecution may be intended as a warning to potentially critical correspondents ahead of the polls.



On September 21, the Sukhum city court gave Anton Krivenyuk a three-year suspended sentence - the maximum possible term - for an article criticising the president’s decision to hand over the railway network to Russian control. Originally published on a Russian internet site on June 8, it was widely reprinted in Abkhazian papers.



It was the first criminal case brought against a journalist in Abkhazia’s post-Soviet history, and journalists fear it is part of an apparent series of attempts this year to discourage independent-minded publications from speaking up.



Bagapsh came to power on a wave of popular support after disputed 2004 elections, and promised to democratise Abkhazian society. But veteran journalists say little has changed.



“Under the last government, there were a whole variety of pressures on the media,” said Izida Chaniya, editor of the Nuzhnaya newspaper. “Independent media was banned, newspapers were not allowed to be distributed, journalists were arrested on the Russian border by the Russian FSB (security service). There were problems at the state television station at election time, when two opposing sides tried to control what went on air.



“Now, on the eve of the elections, we have the same thing. It looked for a while like new people had come to power, that they were more democratically inclined, but it looks like this democracy is just a fraud.



“Once again there is a conflict over Abkhazian television, as the only source of complete information. The private channel Abaza TV is not being given a license to broadcast across the whole republic. Always, before the elections, the media winds up between two fires.”



The government, however, says journalists flout basic ethics. Dmitry Shamba, who represents Bagapsh in parliament and also took part in the legal case against Krivenyuk, said, “Freedom of speech is a basic human right, and is assured in the Abkhazian constitution. Further guarantees of freedom of speech are laid out in media law.



“However, there is an important element, that you cannot exploit this freedom of speech. One man’s realisation of his rights and freedoms must not harm the rights and freedoms of another person.



“Criticism of officials from the media is correct and even beneficial, but this criticism must take place in the framework of ethical norms. Sadly, journalists often write without considering the reactions of the people they are writing about, and with their articles, conclusions or statements, they often go outside the boundaries set out by law.”



But his argument failed to convince Valery Karaskua, a journalist from Abaza TV, who said it was too much of a coincidence that the prosecution should come just before the presidential election.



“When this takes places in the pre-election period, then everyone starts to doubt. We are seeing an attempt to put pressure on the press,” he said.



“If the court is just following orders, then this is bad too. By my own survey – admittedly, a subjective one – judges do not enjoy respect. The worst thing is that they themselves know they are under the influence of the government. And that means there can be no hope of a fair legal process.”



Ordinary Abkhazian residents followed the case against Krivenyuk closely, fearing it could be the start of a campaign against the freedoms Abkhaz have gradually won for themselves since 1993 - the end of the war that drove out Georgia’s army and most of the ethnic Georgian population.



“Now no one can say that journalists are not being investigated. In the pre-election period, big interest groups are clashing and a lot depends on journalists, and the case against Krivenyuk was proof of that. [It] showed that the government has its ways to put pressure on all journalists,” said Irina Smirnova, an economist in Sukhum.



Krivenyuk himself did not recognise his guilt and said he intended to appeal against his conviction.



“The court did not say that I had to withdraw something. And I think this shows that everything that was written in the article was true. Therefore, we will continue,” he said.



Anaid Gogoryan is a journalist from Chegemskaya Pravda in Sukhum.