Georgia: "I have never felt as exposed to threats"
A worsening media environment and rising physical and professional threats have left many feeling unsafe.
International human rights and media freedom organisations have called on Georgia’s president Salome Zurabishvili to pardon imprisoned opposition journalist Nika Gvaramia amid increasing concerns about the safety of journalists in the country.
In an open letter issued on April 20, NGOs stressed the importance of free and independent media to democracy, and urged Zurabishvili to take action against the worrying trend of “the retaliatory jailing of a jornalist”.
“The government’s rhetoric is literally giving green light to perpetrators.”
Since May 16, 2022, Gvaramia has been serving a three-and-a- half year prison sentence for alleged abuse of office during his previous role as director of Rustavi 2, an independent broadcaster he ran until 2019.
Gvaramia – also founder and director of independent broadcaster Mtavari Arkhi - was known for his criticism of the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party and his jailing was widely denounced by national and international rights’ groups as politically motivated. Diplomatic representations stated that it “calls into question Georgia’s commitment to rule of law”.
“Respected international organisations have clearly stated that the arrest of Nika Gvaramia carries political motives, which is, of course, alarming,” Mariam Gersamia, media manager at Transparency International Georgia (TI) told IWPR, adding that the verdict was unprecedented in the history of independent Georgia. “It was damaging to our media environment, since it triggered a new wave of attacks on the media.”
This was a reference to the now-notorious events of July 5, 2021, when as Tbilisi was due to hold its first Pride march at least 53 media workers were injured and one died when far-right crowds took to the streets and attacked journalists and civil society groups. Authorities faced sharp criticism for their apparent inaction.
“The attacks against reporters of July 5, 2021 have not been properly investigated and the organisers were not held accountable; journalists still face personal safety risks,” Mariam Gogosashvili, executive director of the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, told IWPR.
She warned that politicians were encouraging animosity towards media workers.
“The government’s rhetoric is literally giving green light to perpetrators,” Gogosashvili concluded.
Mariam Nikuradze, co-founder and director of OC Media, agreed.
“I have worked as a journalist for 15 years and we have never been exposed to as many physical threats as now,” she told IWPR.
Over the last decade, the increasing polarisation of Georgia’s political landscape has damaged the country’s democratic achievements. Once lauded as a model reformer, the government has attracted criticism for its polices of information control that have worsened media freedom.
Between 2021 and 2022, Georgia saw a 29-rank drop in Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s Press Freedom Index, from 60th to 89th among 180 ranked countries and territories.
In 2020, the London-based advocacy group Article 19 downgraded Georgia’s media environment from the category “open” to “less restricted”.
Anything identifying us as journalists, a microphone or a camera, turned us into a direct target."
In a 2022 resolution on Gvaramia, the European Parliament expressed “concern over the significant deterioration of the media situation and the safety of journalists in Georgia in recent years”.
Freedom of expression and access to information are guaranteed by the Georgian constitution and, while observers describe the media landscape as pluralistic, it is also seen as highly polarised, with broadcasters divided along political lines.
Physical safety has become the main challenge reporters face, noted Gogosashvili.
“Statements by the leaders of the ruling party often encourage aggression. In addition, the lack of investigation in so many case nurture impunity; everyone knows that inquiries may last forever or even if it is completed, the perpetrators will face just minor punishment,” she said.
Wearing a press badge used to protect reporters, but since July 2021 Nikuradze feels it fuels a sense of insecurity.
“When I was covering [LGBTI-related] events in 2013, on May 17, people saw my badge, they said 'do not touch her, she is a journalist. But, on July 5  anything identifying us as journalists, a microphone or a camera, turned us into a direct target,” Nikuradze told IWPR.
“It did not stop then, because the people who organised everything were not punished, all this left a sense of impunity.”
Gersamia maintained that the aggressive rhetoric had discredited and devalued the work of journalists.
“It damages media credibility. And since in a polarised society trust in media is low, when media is supressed or persecuted, public solidarity is not as strong as it should be.”
A March survey of media workers by Deutsche Welle Akademie indicated that 93 per cent of respondents felt less safe than they did three years ago. Almost half stated they had been physically attacked at least once in the last three years because of their job.
In Georgia’s recent history, journalists have felt unsafe during election periods, note Zura Vardiashvili, director of the online publication Publika.
"Our journalists were physically injured, because the elections mean that the so called ‘street boys’ and violent guys from law-enforcement are organised near the polling station,” he told IWPR.
The situation has worsened since the parliamentary vote of October 31, 2020.
A TI Georgia analysis of media freedom since the ballot showed increased attacks against reporters, more cases of state security services wiretapping and outlets dismissing voices critical of the government.
Vardiashvili was one of two journalists arrested during the March rallies against the draft law on foreign agents the ruling party proposed in parliament, which critics saw as targeting freedom of expression. Following the outcry in the country and abroad, the draft bill was cancelled.
Accused of petty hooliganism and disobedience to the police, Vardiashvili was fined 2,200 laris (880 US dollars) on April 18, a decision he labels as “political”.
“We are neither pro-opposition nor pro-government, we are not affiliated with any party, we follow media standards, it is difficult to confront us in this way, and that is why it is a new thing,” he said, adding that the move against independent voices had not come as a surprise.
“Our turn has come,” Vardiashvili continued. “They have put some media managers in prison; almost all media outlets are experiencing financial difficulties and they have the leverage to create more problems, for example threatening businesses for advertising in the media, intimidating journalists or physically assaulting them, as we all remember from July 5.”
Access to information is also being restricted. On February 6, parliament introduced new rules for media accreditation, in a move that Nikuradze described as a way to censor journalists critical of the government.
Among the new rules, journalists can be banned for questioning lawmakers or parliamentary officials who refuse to respond to queries. If found in violation of the rules, reporters would initially face a month-long suspension and then a six-month ban for repeat offences. Their revoked parliamentary accreditation cannot be passed onto a colleague from the same media organisation, effectively barring some outlets.
“Accreditation is an accepted practice and it is good when it regulates formal business relations between journalists and, in this case, parliamentarians,” TI Georgia’s Gersamia said. “Unfortunately, these relationships are again being undermined by politicians [who] do not participate in debates, they do not give interviews and they do not come to TV programmes when invited… [these rules] might be used as a punitive tool.”