Photo-reporters released in Georgia
Four photo-reporters charged with espionage were released from the courtroom on July 22. Tbilisi City Court sustained the prosecution’s motion to approve the plea bargain deal with the photo-reporters as they pleaded guilty. In the end the court found them guilty of espionage, in particular Zurab Kurtsikidze has been sentenced to a three-year trial period, Natia Gedenidze received a year and a half's trial period and Irakli Gedenidze and Giorgi Abdaladze have received two four-year trial periods.
Sunday, 31 July 2011
The photo-reporters' case has caused unprecedented public interest because its results and process directly impacts the development of free media in Georgia. Numerous mass-protests were held in support of the detained photo-reporters in Tbilisi and in different districts of Georgia, as well as in Ukraine and in Moscow. The main demand was to remove the status of ‘highly classified’ from the photographers’ case. With this purpose diplomats were involved in the negotiating process as well.
At the same time, protests continued within different social networks. An open Facebook group named “Coalition of Georgian spies” was created, where around 200 Facebook users joined. A lot of Facebook users changed their avatar to a sign depicting a camera with a strike-through prohibiting photo shooting entitled “No pictures - No democracy”.
Some parts of Georgian society considers the photo-reporters’ sudden release as a result of the public protest actions.
“The feeling of achieving something is so great, I am getting more and more strength – I am happy that I am a journalist!! The unanimous fight in support of our colleagues was the symbol that we should fight for other unlawful detained people’s rights, as well. Let’s not stop! A lot of people need our support…” - commented one contributor to the open group “Coalition of Georgian spies”.
In spite of the fact that the case had the status of ‘highly classified’ and in light of “the major public interest”, the Prosecutor's Office has decided to release some of the evidence. In particular, the testimonies of the detainees- confusing the crime, edited versions of the classified documents found on the personal computers and data storage devices of Gedenidze, Abdaladze and Kurtsikidze, as well as cell phone records.
The cell phone records, Zurab Kurtsikidze asks Gedzenidze and Abdaladze to send their bank details to a certain address so that money could be transferred to them, which itself is not a violation of law; in fact, agencies often buy photos from a “stringer”.
As for the documents which were found during the search of the apartment, eye-witnesses note that they were not sealed up, which leaves their authenticity in question. Thus, it’s still in question whether or not the photo-reporters really were in possession of the following documents: electronic copies of classified documents related to the official visits between foreign diplomats and Georgian high-level officials, documents containing rosters of all the office cleaners at the Presidential Palace and of the employees of the State Procurement Agency. As the lawyer of Zurab Kurtsikidze points out, the link between those documents and the photo-reporters can’t be substantiated.
On the other hand, it is incomprehensible as to why the prosecutor’s office of Georgia deems the information concerning the president’s agenda as secret information; photo-reporters need that information for fulfilling their professional duties and naturally, the press center provides them with that information. It is also unclear why the information about the rosters of Georgian citizens employed at the United Nations is secret information.
The main prosecutor’s office also believes that the mobile phone records of calls shows that Zurab Kurtskidze's mobile phone number was in contact with the phone numbers of GRU officers Anatoly Sinitsin and Sergey Okrokov. Though, there is no stenographic record. It should be mentioned that according to the version of the Prosecutor’s Office, the telephone numbers for which Zurab Kurtsikidze used to call officers of the Russian Defense Ministry in 2004, belong to Meda Changaladze, born in 1938, resident of Gori district, Georgia. The telephone number had only belonged to Kursikidze since 2006. Palitra TV double-checked the telephone numbers that, according to the version of the Prosecutor’s Office, belonged to Sinitsyn and Okrokov, officers of the Russian Defense Ministry.
The Prosecutor’s Office alleges the detained Photo-reporter Zurab Kurtsikidze used to call Sinitsyn and Okrokov on those phone numbers. Palitra TV found out that those numbers belonged to Archil and Alexandre Chikhladze. They confirm that they have had the numbers for a very long time.
There are those in society who have strong doubts concerning the evidence put forth by the Prosecutor’s Office, which is to say nothing of the testimonies, that many feel were coerced from the photo-reporters through physical and psychological means. The photo-reporters prefer not to comment on this issue.
“I knew Zurab Kurtsikidze and Giorgi Abdaladze personally. I had an especially close relationship with Zurab Kurtsikidze – we worked together at the newspapers “Rezonansi” and “Akhali Taoba” for the last 8 years. I am sure he isn’t a spy. This case has helped me to conclude that after the Rose Revolution, President Saakashvili managed to gradually usurp authority and nowadays often makes such odious decisions about detaining somebody by himself. It is also clear that the Minister of Internal Affairs is guilty himself as he detains people under fabricated accusation. I hope one day he and his cohorts will be found guilty and be punished, “- stated the editor of the Human Rights Center.
I am partly satisfied with the results. First of all I am glad that those people are free, but it is bad that they were found guilty and that society was not finally provided with the real circumstances surrounding the case. The testimonies provided by the Prosecutor’s Office can’t bear criticism”, - said the main editor-in-chief of “Rezonansi” Lasha Tugushi to the Human Rights House Tbilisi.
“I didn’t know personally any of the detained photo-reporters, but I sincerely believe that the Prosecutor’s office did not have strong arguments to back-up their accusations. I am quite sure that if not for the involvement of international and local society, they would be detained still. I don’t think the court would check whether the testimonies were strong or weak. What we have is a very paradoxical situation, because in fact their guiltiness was not confirmed, but they were made to admit their crime,” – said media expert Ia Antadze.
The photo reporters themselves didn’t talk about their future plans in public. Though, Giorgi Abdaladze in the exclusive interview provided to the newspaper “Kviris Palitra” said: “My career as a photo-reporter has ended. I might take pictures of only birthdays and weddings. Imagine, how can I take photos of political press conferences and rallies?”
Media freedom and self-censorship
The photo-reporters’ cases have been a kind of watershed moment for the editor of human rights center Aleko Tskitishvili- as both a human rights defender and as a citizen and voter.
“It is has already been 15 years that I have been working as an active journalist, and during that period I have often thought about the risks that journalistic activity entails. I have worked on very risky topics, very harsh journalistic investigations and have edited such newspapers which weren’t blind to the previous or present government’s illegalities. There have been facts of threat. Thus, I had to think about the risks. Though, the main thing is the choice – you have chosen to be a journalist and you don’t step back or you give up. There is a third way, some of my colleague follow this way. This way is keeping silence when you see injustice, then you don’t have your position and at the end you became a conformist and you pretend that everything that is going on around you is not your business” – said Aleko Tskitishvili.
Giorgi Kupatadze, the editor of The Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) thinks that the detention of the photo-reporters can set quite a dangerous precedent.
“The practice shows that nobody is insured from such kind of incidents. The photo-reporters’ case made journalists think about their safety and it is natural that while doing their duties they would be more careful then before. I don’t exclude the possibility that some journalists will now increase self-censorship, which is very bad”, said Giorgi Kupatadze.
“Any of these facts can cause some problems, among them the risk that some journalists will have fear. I hope we will somehow get over this and Georgians will not censor themselves”, Said Lasha Tugushi, editor-in-chief of the “Rezonansi”.
“As you know, the photo-reporters were accused of supplying an organization operating under the cover of a foreign country’s special service with various pieces of information, against the interest of Georgia. That means that we have to know which agency under which the foreign country’s special service covers! If any foreign agency offers me to work for them, after this incident I know quite sure that I will not agree”’, - stated famous Georgia journalist Ia Antadze.
After the photo-reporters’ case, Article 314 of the criminal code of Georgia, providing the definition for espionage, became a subject of discussion as well.
Sandro Baramidze, a specialist in media law, constitutionalist Vakhtang Khmaladze and Lasha Tugushi, editor of the Georgian daily Rezonansi have drawn up a complaint to be lodged to the Constitutional Court of Georgia. In this complaint, they demand that Article 314 (Espionage) of the Criminal Code of Georgia be recognized as unconstitutional.
According to the authors of the complaint, the article contains “vague” terms and definitions which can subsequently result in misinterpretations. Some of the vague terms sited by the authors include ambiguities such as “other information” and the term “foreign organizations” which could refer to private or a nongovernmental”, stated the authors.
“Unfortunately there are some vague terms and definitions in the given article, which gives a possibility for interpretation. When there is such an opportunity in the law authority has a right to punish any of those journalists who will say or do something which they didn’t like”,- said Ia Antadze.
“We are right now working on the action and we will apply to court soon. Our aim is to start wild discussion in society about this issue and everybody understand the current situation”, -said Lasha Tugushi.Shorena Latatia
 According to the Article 314 "Collecting, keeping of the object, document, information or any other data containing the state secret of Georgia or transferring thereof to a foreign country, foreign organization or their representative, or extortion or transference of other information by commission of the surveillance of a foreign state or a foreign organization to the detriment of the interests of Georgia, - shall be punishable by prison sentences ranging from eight to twelve years in length.”