Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Black Sea News Blackout in Ajaria

Deprived of proper information, Ajaria is rife with rumour and suspicion.
Did you hear? The special forces beat up a pregnant student and she had a miscarriage.” “Is it true that when the demonstration was broken up they killed [opposition leader] Koba Davitashvili?”

A week after the violent dispersal of opposition protests on the streets of Tbilisi on November 7, you can hear this kind of feverish rumour in the buses, bakeries and private homes of Batumi, the capital of Georgia’s autonomous region of Ajaria, on the Black Sea.

Although Davitashvili is very much alive, if bruised from a beating by the riot police, and the story about the student is wholly untrue, Batumi residents are still anxious and living in a virtual information vacuum.

Like people all across Georgia, they are greatly concerned about the political crisis facing their country but lack good sources of information to enable them to understand it.

All Georgian television news broadcasts, except those of the official Public Television, were suspended under the state of emergency imposed on November 7. In Ajaria, news broadcasts were halted on the region’s state television, while the local independent Channel 25 was taken off the air altogether.

In Tbilisi, the government justified the suspension of the opposition Imedi channel by alleging that it had been calling for the overthrow of the government. However, one of the owners of Channel 25 in Batumi, Merab Merkviladze, said that no explanation was given when it was taken off the air.

“On November 8, the head of the interior ministry of Ajaria, David Bedia, arrived at two in the morning and demanded that the signal be switched off,” Merkviladze told IWPR. “When we asked why, he said, ‘Those are my orders.’”

“That night we were only broadcasting what the pro-government channels Mze and Public Television were showing,” said a bemused Merkviladze.

With most television channels off the air, locals have been turning to the newspapers for news, but these only have a limited circulation.

The regional newspaper Batumelebi was the only media outlet to give proper coverage to an incident on November 8 when a student rally was broken up by police outside Batumi’s university.

The students were demonstrating against the brutal suppression of the opposition rally in Tbilisi the day before, but their protest met the same fate and was dispersed with truncheons and tear-gas. The authorities later said that all public meetings were banned under the state of emergency.

“We didn’t know that a state of emergency had been declared across the whole country, because it was initially declared only in Tbilisi,” said Marina Giorgadze, dean of one of the university faculties. “If someone had told us this, we wouldn’t have allowed the student protest to go ahead.”

Details of what happened at the university were passed on by word of mouth. Rumours circulated that one student had been beaten to death, but they proved untrue.

Several students were certainly hurt, although Ajaria’s health minister Mikheil Mzhavanadze refused to confirm this. IWPR saw several students being taken to hospital by ambulance, while others were at home nursing head injuries.

Two people were sentenced to 30-day detention for “breach of public order”.

Students to whom IWPR talked were afraid to speak publicly.

“I ran away from masked men to stop them beating me,” said one student called Ia. “They beat our students brutally. How can I talk to you?”

“We hid in the university building but they came in there,” she went on. “Our teacher Madonna Mikeladze sheltered us and so the truncheons hit her instead.”

According to lawyer Aslan Chanidze, “The latest actions by the authorities have reinforced people’s conviction that they are trying to frighten the public. A syndrome of fear is deepening in the country, and the information vacuum is contributing to it.”

Tite Areshidze, head of the Ajaria branch of Georgia’s Association of Young Economists, used to be a fierce critic of the region’s former authoritarian ruler Aslan Abashidze, who was forced out of office by the new administration of President Saakashvili in 2004 and subsequently fled Georgia.

Now he compares Saakashvili to Abashidze.

“Since 2003 the president [Saakashvili] has been using the same PR methods as Aslan Abashidze,” said the economist. “By that I mean [building] fountains, squares and painted facades. From Abashidze we also constantly heard about bridges, stadiums and churches. Now we can draw parallels – this president was prepared to ready to sacrifice his citizens for the sake of power, as Aslan did three years ago.”

Every morning Aleko Makharadze visits his local shop sometimes to buy something, but definitely to discuss politics with his neighbours. These days, the talk is turning to the pre-term presidential election called for January 5.

“When [the united opposition] named [member of parliament] Levan Gachechiladze as their candidate, I had the feeling that the opposition had done a deal with the government,” said one of those at the shop, Shorena Sarishvili. “They ought to come up with a better candidate to make people vote.”

“Both the authorities and the opposition are bankrupt and I am not going to vote,” said another shopper, Levan.

Makharadze tried to inject a note of humour into the conversation, suggesting that the crisis proved Georgia was well on track towards European integration.

“They beat us up in a European way!” he said. “All the policemen waved at us like real Europeans. And they released real European tear-gas!”

With only an official diet of television news on offer, Natella Gurgenidze, a housewife, made a suggestion. “If it goes on like this, we should place our television sets in the street as a mark of protest,” she said. “The authorities should see that we are not watching the demagogy they are serving up.”

Eteri Turadze is editor of Batumelebi newspaper in Batumi.