Reporters Without Borders is deeply shocked by the violence used by the Georgian security forces in the early hours of yesterday against journalists covering an anti-government demonstration in Tbilisi.
“According to our sources, at least a dozen journalists were attacked or detained by the police, who seem to have lost their self-control,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This use of force against reporters who were just covering events is intolerable. We urge both the authorities and the opposition to respect journalists, who must not be the collateral victims of the current political tension.”
Thousands of people have been demonstrating every day in Georgia since 21 May to demand President Saakashvili’s departure. Yesterday, shortly after midnight, interior ministry police used force to disperse the opposition demonstration taking place on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi after warning the protesters they would have to vacate the street for celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of Georgia’s independence.
The police fired tear-gas and rubber bullets and used batons to disperse the protesters. Journalists were verbally and physically attacked in the ensuing melee. Cameras and video cameras were seized or destroyed. And some reporters were arrested without justification.
“Many of these abuses were deliberate,” Reporters Without Borders added. “The police were well aware that the journalists were there as reporters. Several journalists were beaten although they were clearly identified. The police ripped press badges and armbands off some reporters. The list of victims of the night’s violence is likely to lengthen in the coming hours.”
Several journalists working for the online newspaper Netgazeti were the victims of violence. Nino Kachniashvili was hospitalized after inhaling tear-gas. Nestan Tsetskhladze’s camera was confiscated. Tamaz Kupreyshvili told Reporters Without Borders: “I was hit by a rubber bullet while fellow journalist Kote Stalinski and I were outside parliament. We ran towards the metro but we encountered a group of riot police. I shouted that we were press but ten of them surrounded us and began hitting us with batons.”
Two reporters for the Expressnews agency, Anna Gabunya and Tengo Akujava, were arrested. Gabunya spent the night in a police station. Akujava was held for two hours. Their phones were confiscated. Gabunya said that, after searching her, interior ministry officials told her not to cover opposition activity.
Interpressnews reporter Malkhaz Chadova was physically attacked and insulted and then held for several hours at the Digomi district police station. Darejan Papyashvili, who works for the same news agency, was hit and his camera was confiscated.
Dato Mchedlize, a journalist with the Media.ge news website, was beaten with batons. Nato Gogelya, who was covering the demonstrations for the regional newspaper Guria News, had his camera confiscated. Zayra Mikatadze of the newspaper Resonance was physically attacked. Diana Khoperia of Obyektivi had to be given several stitches to her head after being badly beaten.Giorgi Mamatsachvili and Beka Tsitsivadze of the newspaper Assaval Dassavali were severly beaten too.
Several Russian journalists were also roughed up. Vladimir Astapkovych, a correspondent for the RIA Novosti news agency, was detained all night with demonstrators. Another RIA Novosti journalist, Andrey Malishkin, was beaten and kept in handcuffs for five hours at a police station. Material was confiscated from Komsomolskaya Pravda correspondent Vladimir Vorsobin. The Russian media mentioned other journalists but it has not yet been possible to confirm the reports.
The interior ministry said 90 arrests were made during the operation and 37 people were hospitalized. It also said two policemen died as a result of being run over by a car fleeing the scene at high speed.
Since the start of the protests, several Georgian journalists have reported being harassed by both the government and the opposition. In the Black Sea city of Batumi, Eter Turadze, the editor of the local newspaper Batumelebi, was surrounded by a score of police officers and prevented from working while covering a demonstration outside the local TV station on 21 May.
Tamaz Kupreyshvili was physically attacked the next day by Anzor Bitsadze, the son of the leader of the National Assembly opposition movement and former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze, who subsequently apologized for her son’s behaviour.
Journalists are increasingly becoming hostages of the political tension in Georgia. Although the press freedom situation is much better than in neighbouring Armenia or Azerbaijan, journalists are routinely the target of physical and verbal attacks. Georgia is ranked 100th out of 178 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
Picture : Euronews, Reuters