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Sixty Minutes Plays with Fire

Government attempts to gag a crusading TV programme spark widespread condemnation in Tbilisi. The president backs down. For the time being, at least.
By Givi Targamadze

After six years of relentlessly needling the authorities, Rustavi-2 finally committed the ultimate hubris. In the crusading 60 Minutes programme, anchorman Aka Gogichaishvili dared to point the finger of suspicion at the immediate family of President Eduard Shevardnadze himself. And the thunderclap of righteous indignation which rang out from the Georgian Olympus sent shockwaves through Tbilisi society.


The television channel was set up in 1994 by a group of young journalists in the industrial town of Rustavi. Its independent ideology soon assured Rustavi-2 a devoted audience and caused the authorities growing concern. Eventually, in a throwback to the "good old days", the government simply revoked the station's licence and shut it down.


But the founders of Rustavi-2 fought against the ruling and, by 1996, it was back on the air, this time based in Tbilisi. In a few months, the station's Courier news programme had trounced the state channel in the popularity ratings, pitting its fresh editorial stance against the stale party line of the official mouthpiece.


Again the government's patience was tried to breaking point. In the same year, the communications minister Fridon Injia pulled the plug on Rustavi-2 sparking off a series of noisy scandals and protest meetings. In the end, the intervention of Western diplomats proved decisive and, eight months later, the courts overturned the minister's decision, granting the upstart TV channel the right to broadcast again.


Since that time, Rustavi-2 has grown into the most popular station in the former Soviet republic and, since last autumn, 60 Minutes has become its flagship. The programme's host, Akaki Gogichaishvili, is an investigative journalist who devotes untiring efforts to exposing corruption in all areas of political and bureaucratic life. And, against the backdrop of economic crisis, it is undoubtedly the most compelling topic in Georgian society today.


The Rustavi-2 management has continued to take staggering risks through its commitment to 60 Minutes - dragging a rogue's gallery of politicians and businessman into the public spotlight. But when, at last, Gogichaishvili's paper trail led him to the President's family circle, the nation looked on with a sense of pleasurable anticipation. People began to say that 60 Minutes had gone too far.


Gogichaishvili had launched an investigation into the three clans which run all large-scale business in Georgia. These cabals are headed by Shevardnadze's nephew, Nugzar Shevardnadze, his son-in-law, Gia Dzhokhtaberidze, and his daughter-in-law's father, Guram Akhvlediani. The TV host followed up widespread rumours of embezzlement, contract-fixing and colossal bribes.


When Shevardnadze's relatives started to be permanent fixtures on the programme, the president fought back. He announced that the allegations were "like splinters thrust into his heart" and accused Gogichaishvili of malicious intent.


Meanwhile, the ruling elite threw its weight firmly behind Shevardnadze, demanding that the 60 Minutes host be subjected to strict censorship. The interior ministry, the public prosecutor, the security ministry and the security chamber formed a joint committee to investigate the programme's activities and attempted to probe the channel's financial affairs.


Finally, the deputy public prosecutor, Anzor Baluashvili, summoned Aka Gogichaishvili, told him that he had overstepped the mark and advised him to close the programme down. Later that evening, Baluashvili told a close relative of Gogichaishvili that, unless the TV host left the country, he risked being "liquidated".


On the public stage, however, the authorities chose to attack the programme from a very different angle. They homed in on a 60 Minutes investigation into the financial dealings of the Writers' Union which is funded by the state. Here Gogichaishvili claimed that this Soviet dinosaur existed solely to misappropriate public funds and flatter the president's ego.


The government turned the attack on 60 Minutes into a defence of Georgian literature as a whole, declaring that the TV programme had set out to denigrate the nation's cultural heritage and defame its literary icons.


Over 60 non-governmental organisations took part in the ensuing protest, picketing the state chancellery and the president's residence to demand a statement of intent. Strangely enough, the Georgian media itself played a cautious role in the proceedings, advocating the creation of a journalistic commission headed jointly by the president and Anzor Baluashvili.


Shevardnadze twice offered to meet with the leaders of the protest meeting but the demonstrators argued that the issue was of broad public interest and the president should justify his actions to society as a whole rather than a few select representatives.


In the end, Shevardnadze made a sensational TV appearance and publicly proclaimed his commitment to freedom of speech and press independence. For 60 Minutes, at least, this constituted a stay of execution -- until the next time that Aka Gogichaishvili chooses to beard the lion in his den. The battle was won, but the war is far from over. The sword of Damocles still hangs over Georgia's independent media.


Givi Targamadze is an independent journalist and a member of Tbilisi's Liberty Institute


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