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

Georgia Mourns Murdered Journalist

The killing of popular Georgian journalist Giorgi Sanaia has triggered an unprecedented outpouring of public grief and anger.
By Dima Bit-Suleiman

"It's as if my own son was killed - what will we do now?" grieved one woman. Above, the bells of Tbilisi's Sioni cathedral tolled mournfully. Throughout the day, July 31, relatives, friends, colleagues and members of the public turned out to say their farewells to murdered journalist Giorgi Sanaia. An estimated 30,000 people joined them on the streets of the capital.

For days now, on the streets, in the cafes and bars, people have talked about nothing else. Sanaia's death has united Georgians in a mood of sadness, bitterness and anger.

The anchorman of Georgia's Night Courier programme, 25-year-old Sanaia was shot dead in his flat with a single bullet to the back of the head five days earlier. It was as if the bullet had been aimed at people's hearts and souls.

He led the country's most incisive news talk show on the Rustavi 2 channel - a programme noted for its uncompromising interviews and its pursuit of corruption stories. As such, most people are convinced the crime was politically-motivated.

The Patriach of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, officiated at the burial service. It was the biggest funeral people had seen in Georgia since that of murdered dissident Merab Kostava in 1994. Indeed it was the biggest demonstration in the country's ten years of independence, and most high-ranking politicians were present, including the Georgian president, Eduard Shevardnadze.

By early afternoon, the area around the cathedral was jam-packed with mourners. Some walked to the government building tying black ribbon around the perimeter fence as a sign of protest against the journalist's death.

"For the country that has been experiencing crisis and depression for years, the spilling of the blood of the person loved by just about everyone is a logical denouement," said a participant in a talk show, the day after Sanaia's murder.

There are all sorts of theories behind Sanaia's death. Some blame criminal elements; others accuse 'outside forces' aiming to destabilise the country. And there are those who suggest that Sanaia was killed as a result of some homosexual intrigue - the latter being a favourite means of discrediting a person.

But most people suspect this was a 'political murder'. For its part, the government has not ruled out this possibility.

He was, after all, the front man for the only show in Georgia to go behind the headlines. Rustavi 2 was often cited by the authorities as a troublemaker, bidding to stir up trouble.

Colleagues and neighbours of Sanaia have said that he had received threats over the phone but, then again, for journalists, especially those working for Rustavi 2, this is just part of the daily routine.

Directly after news of the murder came through editors, journalists and NGO representatives met and demanded the dismissal of the interior minister Kakha Targamadze, even talked of calling for the resignation of Shevardnadze who, according to popular thinking, has failed to maintain control in the country.

Certainly, the mood in the capital is hostile to the government. "We won't forgive them if they don't find the killer and those who ordered the murder," is the word on the street.

People do not believe there can be a fair investigation process. "Look into your hearts! We all know who killed Sanaia, don't we? The case won't be resolved," said journalist Mari Kirvalidze from the daily Alia newspaper.

Meanwhile, Shevardnadze urged the prosecutor general and the ministers of interior and state security to throw all their efforts into solving the murder. The president postponed a trip to Baku where he was due to meet President Heidar Aliev; the delay was attributed to Sanaia's murder, although some analysts speculated that disagreements over a pipeline agreement they were due to sign was more likely to be the reason.

Indeed Shevardnadze's statements came thick and fast. In one of his first comments he said that the killing of the journalist should not be perceived as an ordinary crime. Later he called on the FBI to assist in the murder investigation.

On July 30, Shevardnadze said in a radio broadcast that of all the possible motives behind the murder one stood out above all, "a well calculated provocation aimed at spreading distrust of the government and plunging the country into the chaos of civil conflict."

The Georgian parliament also condemned the 'barbarian murder' of Sanaia with parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania promising to do everything possible to track down whoever was responsible. "Journalists should know that the parliament will defend their work as being of the highest value to a free Georgia," he told parliament.

Clearly Sanaia's death is a political gift for the opposition. "Sanaia's murder will be considered political for as long as the investigation doesn't prove the opposite," said the parliamentary deputy speaker Vakhtang Rcheulishvili, chairman of the Socialist party.

A joint statement released by opposition parties seemed to reflect the view of most Georgians. "This terrible murder comes as a direct consequence of the fact that for years now Georgia has been ruled by the principles of lawlessness and impunity. In such circumstances, the opposition should unite all its efforts to improve, by peaceful means, the recent catastrophic situation in the country."

No one is sure what the coming days will bring. However, most believe that the investigation will be skewed. Others suspect there will protests across the country. But, for the meantime, most people are just saying their farewells to a man who, for them, symbolised the values close to the hearts of most Georgians.

Dima Bit-Suleiman is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi and Marina Rennau is IWPR

project co-ordinator.