A thorn in the side of Georgia’s Rose Revolution, by Robin Llewellyn
Robin Llewellyn is a master in international journalism, Cardiff University.
Vakhtang Komakhidze was an investigative journalist in Georgia with a nose for a story and a record of annoying the authorities. His revelations of official corruption ended in the death threats which forced him to seek asylum in Switzerland. Robin Oisín Llewellyn talked to him about the limits of media freedom in Georgia.
Having described the brutality reporters faced under Eduard Shevardnadze’s presidency, Georgian investigative journalist Vakhtang Komakhidze added despondently “but in the past they couldn’t stop us, now they can.” That was before the Swiss granted him asylum on 26 July. We had met at a café in the Swiss town where he shared a room with eight other refugees, still unable to work on the material he collected for a film on the South Ossetian conflict.
He has fled a country where, according to the US State Department, “respect for media freedom declined” throughout 2009, with intimidation and violence against journalists widespread. Although the small pro-opposition TV station Maestro started broadcasting via satellite on May 27 this year, the TV sector is dominated by the channels Imedi and Rustavi 2 (61% share in November 2009 – Transparency International) which seldom air views challenging the government. Transparency International drew attention to an instance on October 7, when Imedi, Rustavi 2, and the National Public Broadcaster’s Channel 1 “simultaneously accused a German law professor, Otto Luchterhandt, a member of the EU-funded fact finding commission on the Russia-Georgia war, of being sponsored by Russian company Gazprom and having influenced the report's findings in Moscow's favour. Similarly, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, at the time Germany's outgoing minister of foreign affairs, was falsely accused of having secured a job with Gazprom – again, an allegation based on no evidence.”
A storm of controversy followed Komakhidze’s visit to Tskhinvali with the political scientist Paata Zakareishvili and the NGO activist Manana Mebuke last December. On his return he was met at the de facto border by pro-government journalists who quickly branded him a traitor, while ruling party politician Shota Malashkia denounced the three Georgians as ‘a disease’. “I’m just a journalist.” he says, “I do what I must do. In the future they will understand.”
What prompted the death threats against him? In his email to the news website presa.ge announcing his application for asylum, he wrote “I don’t know which piece of information it was that angered the government. On 6 August, for example, two days before the war, the State Minister of Georgia agreed the evacuation of the grandmother of Alana Gagloeva, an employee of the president’s press service with the de facto authority of the Tskhinvali region. However, at the same time the government left the Georgian population completely unprotected from the Russian army. But it might have been some other piece of information that provoked the government’s aggression.”
The revelation that the Georgian government was evacuating certain individuals from what would shortly become a conflict zone would be unlikely to cause a stir internationally. The European Union’s own investigation led by Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini states on page 19 that: “Open hostilities began with a large-scale Georgian military operation against the town of Tskhinvali and the surrounding areas, launched in the night of 7 to 8 August 2008. Operations started with a massive Georgian artillery attack”. The Georgian government’s control of the media ensured that the report had little impact, but perhaps it is Komakhidze’s proven ability to make allegations matter, to shape public debate, that unnerved influential figures. Although his Reportiori (‘Reporter’) Studio only ever employed a maximum of 5-6 people and was frequently short of money – “we just had enough to make a video, to make a montage”, it had a track record of securing exposure for difficult issues.
With some pride he says that, despite Studio Reportiori’s low budget, “I got results. Usually with journalistic films you get no results in Georgia because nobody sees them, but after my movies there were results. After my film about the corrupt (United National Movement) parliamentarian Koba Bekauri, he ceased working and left parliament.” Other films have addressed overcrowding and brutality in prisons, corruption in parliament, inconsistencies in the official account of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania’s death, the 2004 murder by the police of 19-year-old student Buta Robakidze, the government’s persecution of pro-opposition billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, and the Georgian government’s hoaxing of a rocket attack on voters in Khurcha which it blamed on Abkhazian forces.
Georgian writer Irakli Kakabadze, himself a recipient of the Oxfam Novib PEN Freedom of Expression Award, is emphatic about Vakhtang’s importance, writing that: "It was after watching Vakhtang Komakhidze’s films that Georgian critics started to compare Saakashvili regime to the Peruvian Authoritarian Leader Fujimori and his interior ministry chief, Vano Merabishvili to Peru’s Valdimiro Montesinos. Vakhtang Komakhidze is one of the few film directors in Georgia who tirelessly worked for transparency and democracy in his home country." Ana Natsvlishvili of the South Caucasus Network of Human Rights Defenders described Vakhtang as "one of the most courageous journalists in Georgia", and described his exile as "a big loss for Georgian journalism and for the human rights community as well."
Natsvlishvili described Vakhtang as having practised investigative journalism throughout a difficult time for the genre following the Rose Revolution in 2003. Despite his studio's outreach being limited due to censorship among the major channels, his profile remained high as he was touching taboo issues, she said:
"He was the only important journalist to investigate the death of Prime Minister Zhvania, and to make a movie on the topic at that time was very brave. ...He also investigated killings by the police in the streets, looking into whether they really were in self-defence, killings without any presumption of innocence or respect for the right to life. Very few journalists or human rights defenders dared to deal with these issues, and they would have remained unknown by the broader public without Vakhtang."
Komakhidze began his journalistic career in 1996 as deputy-editor of the Kavkasioni newspaper, under the editorship of Sozar Subari – later Public Defender [Ombudsman ed] of Georgia and now on the board of trustees to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. They established a department of investigative journalism within the paper, focusing on the rampant corruption of the era. He moved on from there in 1999 following an invitation from Akaki Gogichaishvili to join the new investigative programme on the Rustavi 2 TV channel, called ‘60 Minutes’ after the CBS programme.
The Shevardnadze regime did not take kindly to the scrutiny of the popular show. Komakhidze remembers the punishments imposed by the courts when journalists made mistakes: “One time we lost 1 million lari, and twice we lost 50,000 lari (27,116 USD) … At that time no one lost so much money. I think the courts used the fact that the journalists were in the wrong to impose big fines on them. They tried to use the fines to close down the programme... Among the journalists there only two of us never lost a court case and never made a mistake, or possibly we did, but not in court - not in public.”
Shevardnadze lost power to Saakashvili in the Rose Revolution of November 2003, heralding a period of struggle between Tbilisi and Aslan Abashidze, the regional leader of Adjara. On 5 March 2004 Komakhidze was investigating corruption in the regional government and was stopped by the police at a checkpoint, allowing a team of men to beat him and take his camera and materials. ‘60 Minutes’ did not just unnerve the Adjaran authorities, however; it was discontinued soon afterwards. This hit Vakhtang hard: “We had made many movies, every Georgian knows ‘60 Minutes’, and it was our job… Four or five years later Erosi Kitsmarishvili, then the owner of Rustavi 2, gave an interview saying Saakashvili had asked him in 2003 to close the programme because he did not want ‘60 Minutes’ looking into his business and scrutinising the government’s activities.”
The closure of the programme left Vakhtang searching for work in newspapers and on TV, without success. “Then Zurab Adeishvili called me,” he said. “At that time he was the Minister of State Security, ‘like the KGB’, with Giorgi Ugulava (now the mayor of Tbilisi) as his deputy. They said ‘Leave 60 Minutes and come with us, we want to build a new Georgia and we need you here… you can make everything you want and have money for projects.’ I told them ‘No, I don’t want to be in the KGB.’” He claims that his resolve was sapped as no opportunities in the media emerged. He eventually took the position in a unit dealing with high-priority investigations. “Two months I was there, two months and fifteen days.”
During that time, he says, he soon found himself in conflict with his bosses: “I said if I am running this department, show me the case of Giorgi Sanaia, the journalist who was killed in 2002. Nobody believed he was killed by criminals - he was the most famous journalist and had a lot of interesting material. But Adeishvili told me ‘No, we don’t need to look back, you must look forward; leave that case - it’s of no interest now.’ I asked to work on Ossetian materials: I wrote a long document about things that could be done to improve relations with the Ossetians and to make changes in Georgian-Ossetian politics, but this too was refused. They said ‘Don’t go there.’ …They gave me a good post, a good office, good wages, but they told me ‘Stop! You can have as much money as you need. Just don’t make problems’.”
He alleges that things came to a head with Data Akhalaia (the head of the Department of Constitutional Security, brother of current Defence Minister Bacho Akhalaia). “Data worked in the KGB at that time. He came into my room when I was questioning a criminal and beat him, not once , but 4 or 5 times. I shouted ‘What are you doing, coming into my room when I am talking to him?’ Very soon afterwards I found video materials of Akhalaia with his team: they had arrested a citizen, tortured and beaten him. They had videoed it, but they didn’t understand video technology, so when they realised they didn’t need the material they didn’t delete it. I went into the office of Giorgi Ugulava and showed him this material. I said ‘Look. Now what? I can’t work here if this guy is there. You must take a decision: it’s either him or me.’ I explained this to Givi Targamadze, the head of the parliamentary committee. Then I waited a week. When there was no answer, I left my office.”
In January 2005 he set up the Reportiori Studio, and in May published its first documentary, about the death of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania who had died in February that year - officially due to carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty heater. ‘Without a Bullet’ listed the inconsistencies in a case that has now received widespread attention. It also examined the 21 May 2005 murder of Levan Samkharauli, the director of the Forensic Expert Bureau which had examined the heater. His killer was then reported to have committed suicide (dying from two bullet wounds – one to the head, and one to the heart). Releasing the film was not easy, Vakhtang says. At first, Giorgi Targamadze – the anchor of Imedi who would later have his show closed down on air by armed men from the interior ministry, refused to show it; only when Komakhidze had shown it in the open air to a crowd of 10,000 did Imedi change their mind.
The public was shocked, according to Vakhtang. In the early days of the Saakashvili era the public attitude to the administration was that it was “looking to democracy, as nice boys”, as he puts it. While the film does not directly blame anyone for Zhvania’s death, after that the public came to suspect the authorities. He followed that film with an investigation into the murder of teenage student Buta Robakidze by the police, whose parents had been campaigning for answers about his death. Vakhtang took their complaints and consulted experts who again showed inconsistencies in the official version – the trajectory of the bullets proved the victim had had his hands in the air. Again the film was first shown independently, at Cinema House, before it was broadcast.
Komakhidze’s work gained international recognition when he produced a film deconstructing the claim that ethnic Georgian voters in Khurcha had been fired on by Abkhazian forces. By viewing existing footage in slow motion, and interviewing women who had been present, he showed that the attacks were almost certainly carried out by Georgian forces. This material was damning enough for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to demand a response from Tbilisi, which was not forthcoming.
If these events tested the tolerance of the Georgian government, it was his planned film of the Ossetian war of 2008 that, according to Komakhidze’s testimony, finally broke it. Without touching the Russia-Georgia conflict, he focused solely on the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali which preceded it. His working question was: “Why did Georgian forces enter Tskhinvali and what did they do there? Were Georgian forces liberators or aggressors? If Georgian forces were the liberators, they should not touch civilians.” He claims to have material showing that Georgian forces were killing civilians, and observes: “When I came back (from Tskhinvali) I realised that Ossetians are people. They will be in Georgia a political problem - they are people. It’s terrible killing civilians.”
This indignation displays an element characteristic to investigative journalism that perhaps gives it a certain political power and cogency that is lacking in the official studies of the August 2008 war. James Ettema and Theodore Glasser’s study of investigative reporting claims that a tension between objectivity and morality lies at the heart of the genre, as journalists search for the ‘frame’ within which to place a story and make its elements legible. To illustrate this they quote the Chicago journalist Bill Gaines describing the ‘nose for a story’: “An investigative reporter has a threshold of outrage – a point at which you say to yourself, ‘This is wrong’… this threshold is also the point at which the public is likely to say the same thing.”
Komakhidze stresses that he never said in his films that the authorities killed Zhvania (although he believes it); he simply pointed out falsifications in the official account. It is this tension between objectivity and framing the story to engage the sense of indignation that perhaps threatened to transform public debate in a similar way to his previous films, and made powerful figures move against him.
He describes a night shortly after his return, parking his car at his house and crossing to a shop to buy sweets for his children. He felt someone behind him then, but only as he was coming out of the shop did he hear: “You have a family. If you show your film about Tshkinvali, you will make a problem for yourself and your family.” Komakhidze discussed the threat with his friends, including a lawyer, but decided to remain silent in the belief the threat came from the government which would protect the individual and deny all knowledge.
Vakhtang had agreed to interview a South Ossetian figure but, unable to return to Tskhinvali, had agreed to meet him in Geneva. On 28 January he went to take his flight. “I was waiting in the airport at 4am, there were seven people there with no bags - Data Akhalaia was there, and there were many CCTV cameras. One of them was ‘Master’: everyone knows him – he’s a killer. I don’t know his real name. When I was in the KGB I knew him, he was a killer. He came up to me and said: ‘It’s good that you decided to leave Georgia.’ This is a very important message…”
Vakhtang applied for asylum in Geneva, prompting journalists to hold a demonstration in his support outside the Swiss embassy in Tbilisi, and pro-government Real TV to broadcast a programme alleging that Vakhtang had several wives, sent his own children to orphanages, had been sacked from the Ministry of State Security for financial irregularities, had served time in prison for theft as a 16-year-old, and was in Switzerland because he ‘liked comfort’.
Komakhidze is dismissive, suggesting that the producers were clearly aware that he would soon become the basis of a news story: “It wasn’t possible to make such a long programme in such a short time. They were prepared.” His older children live with him as they go through university, he says, while the younger ones live with their mother. As for the allegations of financial wrongdoing, he insists “I didn’t touch the financial stuff – I had no contact with it. It means they wanted to arrest me for financial iregularities, so as to discredit me… That’s enough for the Georgian courts…”
What is true, he says, is that he was imprisoned for theft, although he is annoyed that records from a case dealing with a 16-year old have been published, as this is forbidden by law. “I was stupid”, he says “But I went to the police and said: arrest me! That’s in the materials too but they didn’t show it… I have given many interviews about this; I have no problem talking about it.” He remembers his time in prison as an intellectually stimulating one, as he met many imprisoned dissidents. On his release he attended university and became a member of the Writers’ Union.
If the rest of the charges from Real TV were spurious, he feels certain that the death threats were genuine, and that the authorities are willing and able to kill their opponents. As well as the cases of murder he has dealt with in his films, he says “There are 25,000 prisoners in Georgia. They can put anyone in prison. A lot of people are dying in prison, and nobody can answer the question why.”
A film on Georgia’s conflict with Abkhazia, recently completed by Tbilisi-based Studio Re, has also run into opposition. Produced by a studio with the explicit aim of ‘raising topical questions for public discussion’ and contributing to ‘the democratic state-building and the formation of civil society in Georgia’, ‘Absence of Will’ follows the journey of students Vakhtang Menabde and Teona Mchedlishvili through the conflict zones of Georgia. They set out before the start of the most recent war, researching the political culture at the time of Georgian independence and the separatist conflicts. They observe with incredulity footage of the first president Zviad Gamsakhurdia telling a crowd: “We will stand by them as long as they right historical wrongs, leave Georgia and go back to where they came from. Don’t listen to anybody who tries to put the truth in a different way. The Abkhaz nation does not exist.”
Through the film the two students begin to understand, if not accept, the perspectives of the Abkhazian separatists, gaining insights into Abkhazian experiences. The film also contains a critique by Paata Zakareishvili (who accompanied Vakhtang to South Ossetia) of established discourses: “It’s all the same story in Georgia” he says, “If I’m right, who the hell are Ossetians? If I’m right, ignore Abkhazians, ignore the opposition. The biggest tragedy of our country is not the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, but the fact that our government is totally incapable of talking to its opponents.”
The film was shown on Abkhaz state TV on June 23 this year, and although it directs sustained criticism of Georgian policy, the Abkhazian legislature released a statement condemning the broadcasting of the film, describing it as “ideological bait directed against the Abkhaz people, Abkhaz statehood and against Abkhaz-Russian relations”. If the conflicts have established separate polities defined by their struggle for independence, the various leaderships now appear united in their suspicion of investigative programmes which might in any way erode those divisions. The Georgian government MP Nugzar Tsiklauri displayed this fear when he described Komakhidze’s research group thus: “All those people, who decide to enter the occupied zone – and this territory is occupied by Russia and (South Ossetian leader) Kokoity is simply a representative of Russia – should know that they have to show utmost caution in order not to become a part of Kokoity’s anti-Georgian propaganda”.
An earlier Komakhidze film which addressed the torture of an Ossetian named Dudayev would probably fall into Tsiklauri’s category of anti-Georgian propaganda. I ask Vakhtang whether he has a particular journalistic interest in Ossetian issues. “My job just means that I must show the truth, and I showed that Dudayev was a victim of a Georgian Police attack. Ossetians believe me, they think that I will show the truth of what happened in Tskhinvali. I am not against Georgia, I am Georgian. But I am interested in what happened really. If Georgians are to resolve this problem - the problem between Ossetia and Georgia, the only way is through communication, not lies. Saakashvili has many TV stations; he can cover a big area and argue that his policy towards Ossetians was correct. But Ossetians don’t believe it, or that Georgians want to live with them peacefully; they think that Georgia wants to take them over. They feel that Ossetia was discriminated against during the Soviet Union, and they have arguments to back their view up. Georgia must listen to those arguments and find answers. Georgians don’t know what Ossetians want.”
If and when Komakhidze’s film is completed, one suspects that more Georgians might begin to look for some of those answers, and understand that Ossetians too have been victimised by the wars of the independence era. One can conceive that such a film might, like ‘Absence of Will’, perform a role of ‘journalism as conversation’, establishing understandings of shared humanity on either side of the fractious and contested borders.
As I left the interview I wondered whether a reason for death threats might have been Komakhidze’s record of producing films which located that “threshold of outrage” Gaines describes, rather than for unveiling any single item of news which may have lain unreported from the 2008 war. The material in the Tagliavini report contained information uncomfortable for the Saakashvili administration, but overall was open to being presented in a variety of ways. Paata Zakareishvili observes of that report how “we read only what pleased us in the report and ignored uncomfortable truths. That is why the document is a really brilliant piece of work. In a sense, it’s like a mirror reflecting what we do, and who we are: it’s your problem whether you chose to look at the reflection or prefer to turn a blind eye”. In his documentaries Komakhidze has successfully illustrated failures by the authorities in a range of policy areas, but if the allegations of death threats are true, it has only been with his investigation into the activities of Georgian troops in Tskhinvali in the hours before Russia entered the war that the Government felt it could no longer turn a blind eye. By interfering with the production of the film the authorities were declaring that they were unwilling to look at such a reflection, thus demonstrating to the world the limits of media freedom in Georgia.