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

Caucasus: March - August 2008

Keeping calm in a time of crisis.
By IWPR

COVERAGE OF RUSSIA-GEORGIAN WAR

IWPR was the only media organisation in Georgia which did not suspend operations at any time during the war and continued to produce balanced and objective reports for thousands of readers.

The project's contributors and its Georgia Regional Media Network of journalists rose to the challenge of reacting quickly to gather news from almost all Georgia's towns and regions. IWPR-trained journalists and staff kept news flowing to local, regional and international audiences.

During and after the war, IWPR Tbilisi produced 20 special reports for the Caucasus Reporting Service. Over 50 IWPR contributors covered the conflict from nearly all the hot-spots - including the frontline, as well as those regions where the Russian military was deployed.

Throughout this period, cooperation continued with Abkhaz and Ossetian journalists, whose reports were regularly published by IWPR.

The report How the Georgian War Began, which was researched and written by Alan Tskhurbayev from Vladikavkaz, Sopho Bukia and Dmitri Avaliani in Tbilisi and Tom de Waal in London, was particularly well received.

BBC journalists Tim Hewell and Nick Sturdee said the article was highly regarded by foreign journalists and experts.

"We think it's one of the most unbiased articles describing the chronology of what was in the beginning of the war," said Hewell.

IWPR BLOG COUNTERS MEDIA BLACKOUT

During the war, "[IWPR's blog] was the most reliable source of information for me," said Madona Jabua, a resident of Zugdidi, a city in western Georgia.

Readers of a newsblog set up by IWPR to provide balanced coverage of the Georgian war say it played a vital role in countering an information blockade during the fighting.

The blog - http://regionalreporters.wordpress.com/ - was launched by the IWPR Georgian office as soon as fighting over South Ossetia erupted, and ran for two weeks.

It was created by Georgia Regional Media Network staff, in response to a series of cyber-attacks on Georgian servers, which led to almost all online media in the country being shut down.

"Soon after the war began, both Georgian and Russian-language web pages were blocked, telephone communication was interrupted and cable television blacked out," said Madona Jabua, a resident of Zugdidi, a city in western Georgia.

"Even Russian blogs described [IWPR's blog] as 'the most unbiased source', an assessment which no other media outlets can boast of having achieved during the war," said Irakli Lagvilava, a journalist from Zugdidi. "People were more afraid of the prospect of finding themselves in an information vacuum than of coming under bomb attacks. During the war, [the blog] was the most reliable source of information for me."

Irakli Lagvilava, a journalist from Zugdidi, a city in western Georgian, said everyone acknowledged how balanced the blog was.

"Do you know what pleased me most? The fact that even Russian blogs described our blog as 'the most unbiased source' - an assessment which no other media outlets can boast of having achieved during the war," said Lagvilava.

IWPR IT/Technical Manager Mirian Koridze said that the project chose to place the blog on the foreign server worldpress.com in order to protect against any hacker attacks.

Once established, word of the blog quickly spread and it received 20,000 hits on the day of its launch. By the end of the conflict, the site was receiving more than 130,000 hits a day.

IWPR's frontline journalists contributed to the blog, bringing news of the conflict to national and international audiences.

"During those days [of reporting on the conflict], I did not care about my health or life. I only wanted to let people know what was going on in the town," said Lasha Zarginava, an IWPR-trained journalist, and resident of Poti. Lasha Zarginava, an IWPR-trained journalist, said he was one of just two journalists to stay in the Georgian port town of Poti following its invasion by Russia. For several days, as the entire region remained in an information vacuum, he worked round-the-clock to report on local developments.

"Poti was bombed [by Russia] for the first time on August 8. By the evening of August 9, the town was empty. The local television and radio stations were shut down, newspapers stopped [being produced], while national ones stopped [being delivered]," he said.

Zarginava said he was determined to continue reporting from the town.

"During those days, I did not care about my health or life. I only wanted to let people know what was going on in the town," he said.

When the bombing of the town began, Zarginava went off to the site of the first explosion, camera in hand. He was met there by scenes of carnage.

"Pools of blood and several maimed people scattered around were the first thing I saw," he said.

In the ten days it was open, the blog published up to 550 news pieces and articles, as well as 34 items of photo reportage and 7 video reports. Dozens of volunteers helped to collect and process information alongside the project team of editors and journalists.

"The blog played an important role not only for Georgian internet users, but also for people, who were abroad at the time and had no access to Georgian media," said IWPR web editor Giorgi Kupatadze.

The blog was produced in the Russian language so that information would be understood by both Russian and Georgian readers, as well as many people abroad.

"I think the blog played an important role not only for Georgian internet users, but also for people, who were abroad at the time and had no access to Georgian media," said IWPR web editor Giorgi Kupatadze.

Senior lawyer in the education ministry Nodar Megrelishvili confirmed the blog was his main source of information during the clashes.

"[The blog's creators] have definitely done a great job. It was an effective and timely initiative, especially at a time when it was very difficult to obtain unbiased information," he said.

"It also provided interesting and unbiased opinions from both local and foreign experts. The information was invariably objective and verified."

According to Dimitri Avaliani, an editor at the newspaper 24 Hours, the blog was the best source of information available in Georgia during the war, "I am a journalist myself, but I must admit that no other outlet has worked as effectively at this time in Georgia as that blog."

He added that many journalists from other countries - including Poland, Russia, Slovenia and Ukraine - called to say how grateful they were that the blog was available.

"I also know that many foreign journalists used the blog's reports in their own analytical articles. I am a journalist myself, but I must admit that no other outlet has worked as effectively at this time in Georgia as that blog," he said.

JOURNALISTS REPORT ON AFTERMATH OF WAR

“I am lucky to have taken that course on how to work in a conflict zone, otherwise I might have failed to provide an unbiased coverage of the war,” said head of Trialeti radio service Nino Chibchiuri.Once it ended, IWPR journalists strove to document the aftermath of the short yet devastating conflict. They spoke to refugees to gather first-hand accounts of their suffering.

On August 27, reporters from the Georgia Regional Media Network visited the war-damaged town of Gori in eastern Georgia, which had been occupied by Russian troops.

"The impressions of what I saw in Gori are going to haunt me for a long time," said one of the journalists Marika Tsikoridze.

"I will never forget how [people] rummaged through the ruins of their homes, hoping to find photos or other memorabilia precious to them. I will never forget how people pulled down their burnt houses that were no longer fit to live in."

Some of the members of the Georgia Regional Media Network were unable to take part in the visit as, at that time, the main road connecting eastern and western parts of the country continued to be blocked by the Russian military.

On their visit, the journalists went to two districts of the town that were hardest hit by Russian bombs, as well as a tented encampment at a soviet-style amusement park, where refugees from South Ossetia's Georgian villages live.

Residents there told the journalists that they appreciated them coming to report on the conditions they faced.

"Under the circumstances, any signs of attention, however insignificant, mean a lot to us," said a resident of the village of Tkviavi Maia Abashidze, whose house was bombed and then razed to the ground by bulldozers.

"Here, in the tent town, we don't hear shooting any more, but we still live in fear. We are many here, and this helps us not think about what we suffered and what we may be doomed to go though in future."

“I am very grateful to IWPR – were it not for its workshops and visits to conflict regions, my work, I guess, would be less balanced,” said Chibchiuri."Never have I ever seen so many sad children in one place," said Zaur Dargali, who participated on the mission.

"In the tent town in Gori, I saw hundreds of such kids, with no wish to play because of what they've gone through. People there sleep on grass. They have no toilets or showers. I got the impression that they still did not realise fully what had happened to them."

On their mission, the journalists also the met former minister for refugees and settlement Koba Subeliani, who is in charge of providing for those driven from their villages.

He gave them details of measures he was introducing to help.

"The government has launched a whole series of programmes to support the refugees, to find those who went missing during the conflict, to establish identities of the dead," said Subelini.

He pointed out the important job that journalists were doing to report this service, "It is of vital importance to us to convey the information as soon as possible to each person affected by the war - all the more so since most of the regional media are paralysed - which is why I am grateful to see journalists visiting here in an organised way."

Journalists also visited Trialeti - a TV and radio station looted during the war.

Head of the radio service Nino Chibchiuri, a member of the Georgia Regional Media Network project, said that past training he was given by IWPR on conflict resolution helped him when reporting on the war.

The residents of war-damaged town of Gori told IWPR journalists that they appreciated them coming to report on the conditions they faced."I think I am lucky to have taken that course on how to work in a conflict zone, otherwise I might have failed to provide an unbiased coverage of the war," said Chibchiuri.

"I started to feel I had a responsibility towards both the Georgian and Ossetian communities. I chose every word I wrote carefully, afraid to make a mistake due to my lack of experience.

"I am very grateful to IWPR - were it not for its workshops and visits to conflict regions, my work, I guess, would be less balanced."
 
IWPR PREPARES JOURNALISTS FOR CONFLICT REPORTING
 
"I started to feel responsible. I checked every word I wrote, afraid to make a mistake due to my lack of experience," said IWPR-trained journalist Irakli Managadze, who reported from the Georgian villages of Frone and Nuli in the conflict zone during the conflict.Before the war broke out, the project had prepared dozens of journalists for covering ethnic conflicts and war-time situations.

For example, a workshop held in Tbilisi, from August 2 to 3, focused on restrictions imposed by the government on breaking news and on coverage of public disorders and conflicts.

Just three days later, when conflict erupted, workshop participants had a chance to put the knowledge they had gained during

"I think I am lucky to have taken that course of theory of working in a conflict zone," said Irakli Managadze, who reported from the Georgian villages of Frone and Nuli in the conflict zone during the hostilities.

"I started to feel responsible. I checked every word I wrote, afraid to make a mistake due to my lack of experience."

Trainer Nino Gerzmava said the journalists had understood the importance of keeping reports from hot-spots restrained and based on fact rather than on emotion.

"The proof of this is how our journalists worked in the conflict zone - some of them had a difficult time trying to control their emotions, but never once was an unverified report published on IWPR's special blog," he said.

CONTINUED SUCCESS OF ACCENT RADIO PROGRAMME

Following the war, IWPR's Accent radio programme helped a son find his mother, whom he believed to have been killed during the conflict. At the end of August, IWPR considered the problems faced by those refugees who fled the fighting on its radio programme Accents.

The programme, which is broadcast twice-monthly as part of the Georgia Regional Media Network Project, gave an unprecedented account of the damage inflicted during the war and conditions faced by the refugees.

Work on the programme - which involves journalists from around the country and from unrecognised territories - began at a time when there was no accurate official information available and when Russian troops still remained in Georgian regions.

The programme team found it difficult to get hold of correspondents, as they all had gone to report on war-torn regions. As a result, journalists had to record interviews with people in the field, in a number of different towns, instead of in the studio, as they normally do.

The Accent programme helped a son find his mother, whom he believed to be dead. Finding lost relatives was a great challenge for many refugees following the war.

The man, who was evacuated to Guria during the fighting, overheard - quite by chance - Accent's audio-diary based on a story told by his mother Taliko Gugusian.

"From the Kodori Gorge, together with other refugees, I was sent to Guria," recalled Nodar Gugusian.

"I searched for my mother for several days, not knowing whether she was alive or dead. I don't have a TV set in the refugee collective centre, where I live together with my children. Radio is the only source of information for us," he continued.

"I couldn't believe my ears, when I heard my mother's voice [on the radio]. Later, local journalists helped me find the author of this report about my mother. Now we have [been] reunited."

Accent is broadcast by four popular radio stations in Georgia, and is intended improve the flow of news and information to the country's regions and breakaway territories.


SELECTED ARTICLES

Editorial Comments

Caucasus Burning, by Thomas de Waal, 19-Aug-08

South Ossetia: An Avoidable Catastrophe, by Thomas de Waal in London, 11-Aug-08

Top of the Class, by Salla Nazarenko in Tbilisi, 23-Jul-08

Bullies of the Caucasus, by Thomas de Waal, May 15 08

The Caucasus Election Script, by Thomas de Waal, 2-Apr-08
 
Special Report

How the Georgian War Began by Dmitry Avaliani and Sopho Bukia in Tbilisi, Alan Tskhurbayev in Vladikavkaz and Thomas de Waal in London, 22-Aug-08

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