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

Caucasus: Nov ‘07

Regional newspapers overcome reporting restrictions during state of emergency by republishing IWPR output.
IWPR reporters provided eyewitness coverage of the government’s suppression of opposition demonstrations at the beginning of the month, helping to break the virtual news blackout imposed by officials.

On November 7, the day that violence broke out on the streets of Tbilisi, IWPR’s Georgia office was full both with regular staff and visiting journalists from other parts of the region from our Cross Caucasus Journalism Network project.

When we heard that police were breaking up the opposition protests with tear-gas and water-cannon, a group of us set off towards the parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue. One policeman warned us not to go any further. When told we were journalists, he said, “Journalists or not, if there’s trouble, no one one will bother to find out.”

There was an unpleasant smell of tear-gas and the asphalt was wet from the water-cannon. People were covering their faces with wet flannels, handed out by nurses. One young woman was crying and saying, “This can’t be happening in Tbilisi, I don’t believe it.”

The parliament was ringed by a cordon of special forces policemen in gas-masks and carrying transparent riot-shields. They stood head to head with the demonstrators who were either appealing them to change sides or insulting them and swearing at them.

One of the protesters tried to get closer and hit one of the policemen. Some of the protesters started throwing stones at which point we heard shots and smoke spread through the crowd: the police had fired tear-gas.

There was a crush of people fleeing and no one could see for the smoke. I lost my colleague Margarita Akhvlediani in the crowd, my eyes were streaming, my face was burning and I felt as though I couldn’t breathe and was about to choke.

Azerbaijani journalist Sabuhi Mamedi, a member of our Cross Caucasus Journalism Network, was hit by a rubber truncheon.

“I was standing on a staircase and taking photographs,” he said. “One policeman began to shout at me in Georgian and then to beat me with a truncheon. I was saved by a Georgian journalist who explained that I was a guest and didn’t understand Georgia.”

Over the next two weeks, IWPR published five articles on the Georgian crisis. They were: Street Battles Rock Georgian Capital by Giorgy Kupatadze; Tbilisi Violence Follows Mounting Protests by Giorgy Kupatadze; Saakashvili Calls Opponents’ Bluff by Mikhail Vignansky; Black Sea News Blackout in Ajaria by Eteri Turadze; and Georgia: Misha’s Challenge by Sopho Bukia.

In these two weeks, newspaper and online journalism became very important in Georgia as the main opposition television channel Imedi was taken off the air because of the imposition of a state of emergency.

“I read the articles on your website and I think that you covered the situation very well,” said Tbilisi political analyst Archil Gegeshidze. “The right angle was chosen and the right emphasis was made.”

Our articles were republished in Georgian in the high-quality Georgian-language newspaper 24 Hours.

Three regional newspapers IWPR has been cooperating with over the last three years - Southern Gates in Samtskhe-Javakheti, Batumelebi in Ajaria and Akhali Gazeti in Imereti - ran some or all of IWPR’s ouput, helped to overcome the virtual blackout imposed by the government.

“We read IWPR’s articles on the website during the state of emergency,” saide Lela Inasaridze, editor of Southern Gates. “We did not have our own correspondent in Tbilisi at the time and it is possible to say we received a full picture of the events from these articles.”

Two prominent Georgian opposition politicians praised the accuracy and objectivitly of IWPR’s coverage during the crisis.

Former conflict resolution minister Goga Khaindrava said, “I read the [crisis reports] very quickly due to lack of time, but I was able to notice that you were able to capture the whole picture of the Georgian crisis. It’s very important because foreign readers read you who ought to receive proper information from Georgia.”

David Usuphasvili, leader of the opposition Republican Party, said, “You always have high quality balanced articles. It came as no surprise that your [crisis reports were] in this spirit. I cannot agree with everything that I read in your articles but that is not the main thing. There is a real lack of objective articles in our journalism and I have a high regard for what you do.”