A Thorn in the Side of Georgia’s Rose Revolution

by    /  August 10, 2010  / No comments

Vakhtang Komakhidze was an investigative journalist in Georgia with a nose for a story and a record of annoying the authorities. His revelations of official corruption ended in the death threats which forced him to seek asylum in Switzerland. Robin Oisín Llewellyn talked to him about the limits of media freedom in Georgia.

Having described the brutality reporters faced under Eduard Shevardnadze’s presidency, Georgian investigative journalist Vakhtang Komakhidze added despondently “but in the past they couldn’t stop us, now they can.” That was before the Swiss granted him asylum on 26 July. We had met at a café in the Swiss town where he shared a room with eight other refugees, still unable to work on the material he collected for a film on the South Ossetian conflict.

He has fled a country where, according to the US State Department, “respect for media freedom declined” throughout 2009, with intimidation and violence against journalists widespread. Although the small pro-opposition TV station Maestro started broadcasting via satellite on May 27 this year, the TV sector is dominated by the channels Imedi and Rustavi 2 (61% share in November 2009 – Transparency International) which seldom air views challenging the government. Transparency International drew attention to an instance on October 7, when Imedi, Rustavi 2, and the National Public Broadcaster’s Channel 1 “simultaneously accused a German law professor, Otto Luchterhandt, a member of the EU-funded fact finding commission on the Russia-Georgia war, of being sponsored by Russian company Gazprom and having influenced the report’s findings in Moscow’s favour. Similarly, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, at the time Germany’s outgoing minister of foreign affairs, was falsely accused of having secured a job with Gazprom – again, an allegation based on no evidence.”

Vakhtang Komakhidze was the only important Georgian journalist to investigate the death of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. His revelations of official corruption ended in the death threats which forced him to seek asylum in Switzerland.

A storm of controversy followed Komakhidze’s visit to Tskhinvali with the political scientist Paata Zakareishvili and the NGO activist Manana Mebuke last December. On his return he was met at the de facto border by pro-government journalists who quickly branded him a traitor, while ruling party politician Shota Malashkia denounced the three Georgians as ‘a disease’. “I’m just a journalist.” he says, “I do what I must do. In the future they will understand.”

What prompted the death threats against him? In his email to the news website presa.ge announcing his application for asylum, he wrote “I don’t know which piece of information it was that angered the government. On 6 August, for example, two days before the war, the State Minister of Georgia agreed the evacuation of the grandmother of Alana Gagloeva, an employee of the president’s press service with the de facto authority of the Tskhinvali region. However, at the same time the government left the Georgian population completely unprotected from the Russian army. But it might have been some other piece of information that provoked the government’s aggression.”

The revelation that the Georgian government was evacuating certain individuals from what would shortly become a conflict zone would be unlikely to cause a stir internationally. The European Union’s own investigation led by Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini states on page 19 that: “Open hostilities began with a large-scale Georgian military operation against the town of Tskhinvali and the surrounding areas, launched in the night of 7 to 8 August 2008. Operations started with a massive Georgian artillery attack”. The Georgian government’s control of the media ensured that the report had little impact, but perhaps it is Komakhidze’s proven ability to make allegations matter, to shape public debate, that unnerved influential figures. Although his Reportiori (‘Reporter’) Studio only ever employed a maximum of 5-6 people and was frequently short of money – “we just had enough to make a video, to make a montage”, it had a track record of securing exposure for difficult issues.

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