Monday, September 05, 2005
Ramishvili arrest a warning to media, experts say
The recent arrest of two executives from a Georgian television station often critical of the government could have far-reaching implications for the status of media in Georgia, observers are saying.
Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili has characterized the August 27 arrests of Shalva Ramishvili and David Kokhreidze on charges of extortion as the opening of an anti-corruption crackdown on Georgian media companies. But associates of the detainees, along with some human rights activists, accuse the government of orchestrating the pair’s arrest in an attempt to squelch media criticism ahead of parliamentary by-elections in October.
In an interview with EurasiaNet, Giorgi Kokhreidze, brother and business partner of David Kokhreidze, charged that the arrests, as filmed by the Interior Ministry, were "a provocation" against the 202 television station. "The show that he [Ramishvili] produced does not suit the government. It is an independent channel," Kokhreidze said. "There was a goal to scare not only journalists [on 202] but all journalists in Georgia."
The government has since indicated that these arrests are the beginning of an effort to crack down on corruption in the media. On the day of Ramishvili’s arrest, Merabishvili, the interior minister, remarked during his August 27 news conference that "along with the Customs Office, the Tax Department and other state agencies, the media must also be free of corruption." Merabishvili added that the ministry would be willing to work with "any interested party."
Giorgi Kokhreidze maintains that the arrests of his brother and Ramishvili, along with the sting operation, were designed to discredit 202. "A lot happened that was not shown [on the clip aired by Georgian TV stations from the arrests]," he said, including contradictory statements from Bekauri concerning the timetable of events and who exactly propositioned him [for money]."
Maia Mikashavidze, dean of journalism and media management at the Georgian Institute for Public Affairs in Tbilisi, commented that while it is still too early to say exactly what happened between Ramishvili and Bekauri, the situation is unsettling. "It is a very strange coincidence that this could happen to the person who was the most outspoken against the government," Mikashavidze said. "That is why it is creating fear in people."
Members of the ruling National Movement have also spoken out against the proceedings, arguing that the official investigation should also focus on Bekauri and his business dealings. A meeting of the party’s parliamentary faction is planned for September 4 to discuss the issue. One National Movement MP, David Zurabishvili, who had been increasingly at odds with the National Movement leadership, resigned from the party after he was criticized by fellow National Movement member and MP Giga Bokeria for publicly questioning Ramishvili’s arrest.
One civil rights activist, however, argued that the problem often lies with journalists themselves. The case against Ramishvili, said Giorgi Meladze, a program director at the Liberty Institute, is one of simple corruption, not government pressure against independent media. "We all saw what was happening," Meladze said. "There is clear evidence that this guy is taking money." While Meladze agreed that government pressure on the media does exist in Georgia, he said that this is not the case with Ramishvili and 202. "I just saw that a person has been arrested for taking a bribe. The station is still operating," Meladze said.
A high court has upheld Ramishvili's three-month detention before trial. Civil Georgia reports on new details of the case that emerged on Friday:
The Interior Ministry issued a statement unveiling the name of a person who acted as mediator between MP Bekauri and Ramishvili – Irma Stepnadze, spokesperson of the Georgian Railway Company. The Interior Ministry said that Ramishvili and MP Bekauri met in Stepnadze’s apartment in Tbilisi where Ramishvili received USD 30,000 from Bekauri – part of the USD 100,000, which Ramishvili was allegedly extorting from Bekauri in exchange for not airing a compromising story about the parliamentarian. Irma Stepnadze is a long-time common friend of both Ramishvili and Bekauri.
At a pre-trial hearing on August 29 Ramishvili said that he pinned hopes on the testimony of the apartment’s owner (Ramishvili then refrained from naming the owner), but eventually Stepnadze testified against Ramishvili and even said that the latter offered her USD 5,000, which she refused to take.
As a result, Stepnadze has become the second person, after MP Bekauri, to give evidence against the 202 TV co-founder, thus improving the investigators' case against Ramishvili.
In a response to the Interior Ministry’s statement and the testimony of Stepnadze, Shalva Ramishvili disseminated, through his defense lawyers, a letter on September 1 in which the 202 TV co-founder gave his version of the developments and also unveiled two new names who might also be questioned by the investigators.
Meanwhile, Georgia's Public TV channel has offered to broadcast the report that Bekauri was allegedly trying to suppress.