The cameras at Georgia’s main opposition broadcaster, Imedi, kept rolling Nov. 7, when masked riot police officers, armed with machine guns, burst into the studio. They smashed equipment, ordered employees and television guests to lie on the floor and confiscated their cell phones. A news anchor remained on-screen throughout, describing the mayhem. Then all went black.
The pretext for the raid — which silenced the channel — was a government claim that Imedi was fomenting unrest when it broadcast a statement by one of its founders, Badri Patarkatsishvili, promising to topple the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Earlier that day, riot police officers lashed out with clubs and fired rubber bullets at unarmed anti-government protesters. A nine-day state of emergency followed.
Now, 11 months later, Georgia’s democratic credentials are again being questioned, and tested, as the country finds itself on the front line of a confrontation between Russia and the West.
Georgia and its American backers, including the Republican and Democratic U.S. presidential contenders, have presented Georgia as a plucky little democracy in an unstable region, a country deserving of generous aid and NATO membership. But a growing number of critics inside and outside the country argue that Georgia falls well short of Western democratic standards and single out a lack of press freedom as a glaring example.
Saakashvili, a telegenic New York-trained lawyer, came to power in 2004 after a wave of protests known as the Rose Revolution, promising to shed the authoritarianism of the past. Lincoln A. Mitchell, a Georgia expert at Columbia University, contended that Saakashvili now presided over a “semiauthoritarian” state, while saying that it was also the most democratic of the former Soviet states in the region.
“The reality is that the Saakashvili government is the fourth one-party state that Georgia has had during the last 20 years, going back to the Soviet period,” he said. “And nowhere has this been more apparent than in the restrictions on media freedom.”
In its most recent report, Freedom House, a human rights research group based in New York, ranked Georgia, in terms of press freedom, on a level with Colombia and behind Nigeria, Malawi, Indonesia and Ukraine — the last a NATO aspirant, like Georgia.
A 2008 State Department report on Georgia’s democratic progress noted that respect for freedom of speech, the press and assembly worsened during the 2007 crisis, and that there continued to be reports of “law enforcement officers acting with impunity” and “government pressure on the judiciary.”
Sozar Subari, Georgia’s ombudsman for human rights, an independent watchdog appointed by parliament, accused the government of stifling press freedom by ensuring that sympathetic managers were installed as directors at national broadcasters.