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Alarming dimensions of blackmailing journalists in Georgia

Events unfolding around Rustavi 2 TV Company have so far been a subject of interest of advocates for free speech and freedom of expression in Georgia. However, the situation has become even more dangerous and alarming after the Director General of the company, Nika Gvaramia, made a special statement about him being blackmailed with a video footage featuring his private life.

Along with the technological developments, the use of surreptitious audio and video recordings of various type and hidden cameras has become an inseparable part of modern political and social life. However, while in developed democratic states such scandals are mainly associated with the exposure of wrongdoings of public officials by media and journalists, in Georgia, it is the state that uses surreptitious recordings of private life as a means of blackmailing media representatives and this vice practice becomes of increasingly systematic nature.

In September 2015, the host of political talk show on the Georgian Public Broadcaster, Eka Mishveladze, made a public statement about surreptitious recordings of her private life after her program was taken off the air on the ground of conflict of interests as she got married to Aleksi Petriashvili, one of the leaders of the Free Democrats political party. Despite the public statement in which the journalist accused special services, no investigation has been launched.

In May 2013, the First Deputy Interior Minister, Gela Khvedelidze, was charged with disclosing personal or family secret for the release of video featuring the personal life of journalist Giorgi Paresishvili, an offence punishable under Article 157 of Criminal Code of Georgia by fine, restriction of freedom or imprisonment. Khvedelidze was convicted of the offence and imposed a year of conditional sentence. Back then, members of the government, including the Justice Minister and the former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, declared that by punishing his first deputy then the Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili set an example and a good precedent of assuming political responsibility. However, as the developments showed, a lenient punishment imposed on Gela Khvedelidze has served as an encouragement to state entities and their representatives to use hidden recordings against journalists.

The watchdog function of media implies the exposure of undesirable facts for the government and the criticism of representatives of authorities. Therefore, pubic officials may have temptation to abuse the means of hidden recording which the state uses for purposes specified in the law.

In the case of Gela Khvedelidze, the then Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said at a special news briefing that Khvedelidze independently uploaded the video of personal life of journalist Giorgi Paresishvili on Internet in retaliation for the information about illegal and corrupt activities of concrete public officials, which the journalist collected and reported. Giorgi Paresishvili talked about those activities himself but no investigation was launched into them regardless of the fact that the release of that information prompted the first deputy interior minister to commit the crime.

When it concerns the use of hidden recordings of private lives against journalists or other media representatives, the level of responsibility of the government is especially high because there is the political interest towards the journalists and their activities in each of the above mentioned cases while the government has the access to technical means and resources of recording, eavesdropping and spying. The government must investigate the crimes irrespective of whether offenders are among the government or not.

Journalists must enjoy special protection against the disclosure of details of their private lives. Blackmail puts journalists in a situation where any choice they make harms them. By accepting a condition of blackmail they restrict their freedom of expression, opinion and activity, while by going public with the news about them being blackmailed they have to talk about their private lives when the threat of carrying out the blackmail still exists. Nevertheless, General Director of Rustavi 2 Nika Gvaramia has chosen to go publicand recount about the warning he received of releasing the video footage featuring his private life. Nika Gvaramia accused the government and connected this blackmail to its efforts to gain control over the Rustavi 2 TV company.

This form of blackmailing representatives of media violates two fundamental principles of democratic society – the right to free speech and expression and the right to privacy. Consequently, a systematic nature of such incidents has become alarming. It is necessary to launch an effective investigation into these cases and impose adequate, not fictional, liability on culprits. Even more important is the political will of the government to reject such vice practice. Otherwise, the effect of this practice on the freedom of speech and democratic development in Georgia will be devastating.