‘It doesn’t feel safe to be a reporter here’: how the death of a journalist shook Georgia

‘It doesn’t feel safe to be a reporter here’: how the death of a journalist shook Georgia
The far-right crowd on 5 July. Image: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media

16 July 2021

On 5 July, Georgia’s LGBTQ+ communities were gearing up to hold the annual Tbilisi Pride march. First held in the Georgian capital in 2019, the expected parade was a statement of liberal values in the South Caucasus.

But this year, the event didn’t go ahead as planned. Instead, a violent, far-right crowd monopolised the streets of Tbilisi, following calls from the Georgian Church to stage a counter protest, and from Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who had urged Pride to cancel the celebrations. The mob sent LGBTQ+ activists into hiding and ransacked the Tbilisi Pride offices. They also attacked 52 Georgian journalists, who had been sent to cover the violence. Days later, one of these reporters, TV Pirveli cameraman Lekso Lashkarava, died. He had sustained severe injuries as a result of his assault.

The news of Lashkarava’s death shocked many. It suddenly made journalism a much more dangerous job in what had been, until then, a largely liberal media landscape. In the demonstrations which followed the violence, thousands of Georgians called for the Prime Minister’s resignation. Journalists, too, have switched to campaign mode. This week they picketed a government news briefing by standing with their backs to the officials and showing pictures of Lashkarava’s bruised face to the cameras.

As Georgia faces difficult questions on both its own values and freedom of the press, The Calvert Journal spoke to journalists, activists, and writers about how we got here — and what these events reveal about Georgian media and society today.

Mariam Nikuradze

Reporter, co-founder and director at OC Media

“I’ve been a journalist for 12 years. I’ve covered all major protests and elections and I always felt that being a reporter in Georgia is safe.

In addition to the Pride March on 5 July, a film screening and a music festival were organised [for Tbilisi Pride] on 1 and 3 July, in secret locations.

When I arrived at the film screening on Thursday, 1 July, there were a lot of police there. You could feel that there was a Ministry of Internal Affairs operation in place, to keep everyone safe. When tension is expected at events, I try to stick closer to the police, because they know I’m a journalist, and they will protect me. During the film screening, I was mostly outside, next to the police and the far-right crowd. The mob tried to break the police corridor, I honestly got scared. But the police reacted immediately, they added more corridors, they pushed the mob away, and it felt safe, despite the fact that the protesters were throwing stones, eggs, and bottles. The police did everything they could.

On Saturday, 3 July, the far-right didn’t know the location of the music festival in time, so they didn’t mobilise early enough, and only a few of them showed up. The event went safely, as planned.

On Sunday, 4 July, I thought about how to prepare my team for covering Pride, so I decided to enhance our visibility as journalists because I thought that would protect us. I had this big backpack with my cameras, and I was up at 1am. sewing my press badge to the rucksack. I also told my team to dress conservatively, because these far-right people can get angry even if you’re just wearing colourful clothes, an earring, or a big tattoo on your arm.

By the morning, far-right groups were already gathering, so I took my safety helmet and a camera with me. As I was taking photos, I felt some angry looks [directed] at me and heard comments about how the media was bad, and how it’s full of “faggots”. One of my colleagues, who was wearing a t-shirt that said “Press” told me he felt he was being targeted because of his top.

When I went to the office, we learned that journalists had already been attacked by the mob, so I told my team to remove their press badges, and to keep a low profile. I believe this saved us. We did have our cameras on, however, and some people told me that if I got closer to them, they would kill me, or beat me.

I’ve never seen anything like that: angry mobs, and no organised police. The crowd was running, swearing, shouting, and no one prevented them from doing anything. I just saw small groups of police officers standing in corners, not doing anything. That was weird, because during recent anti-government protests with no more than 200 people, the police would bring out the tear gas, and water tanks, and not miss a chance to use them. On 5 July, we had reports on violence against journalists, and the police did nothing to prevent it.

I saw journalists being swallowed by crowds of 50 to 100 people, [people] hitting them without mercy. Only one or two police officers would be around, and they would slowly approach the mob to help the victims, and get them into cars. The Ministry of Internal Affairs claimed the next day that they had riot police in place but they didn’t — I didn’t see them. It felt like the police had an order not to intervene.

On 6 July, there were big protests to condemn the violence. Far-right groups also came to organise their own demonstrations. Again, there was an unprecedented number of police officers, all working professionally, arresting more than 100 people, ensuring everyone’s safety. How come during the space of one week, the police were so effective on 1 July and on 6 July, but on 5 July they somehow failed to provide any kind of protection?

Now I ask myself, is it still safe to cover events as a journalist or not? Are we going to return to normal? If the guilty are not punished, this violence will just go on. We are seeing that trials [for some of the perpetrators] are moving very slowly, and they haven’t arrested the organisers [of the mob], but only members of the crowd. If this behaviour is not punished, it will be more dangerous for us to continue to cover demonstrations, so we will have to reconsider our security strategy. We might need to go to protests undercover.”

Giorgi Tabagari

Director of Tbilisi Pride

“The far-right crowd started hunting LGBTQ+ activists throughout the day. We had to hide, change locations several times, yet somehow these radical groups kept finding where we were. We had the impression that these groups were cooperating with the government because it was bizarre how they kept finding our location all day long.

An online TV channel, ALT info, was actually behind the organisation of the pogrom on the streets. They call themselves a media organisation but I think they’re almost a terrorist group; they were inciting violence. They are largely present on Facebook and YouTube, and they used Telegram and Viber to organise the violence. They received a license for one cable television channel, but not a second one. Georgian media regulation is very liberal, so there’s nothing to hinder their broadcasting at the moment.

[The mob] came to the office of the Pride co-organisers, the Shame Movement, where 30 of us had met. They destroyed everything there, just as they’d done with the Pride Tbilisi offices. This is actually where Lashkarava was attacked. A Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist told us we had to evacuate, so we literally managed to get out a minute before the crowd got there, and then they started chasing us everywhere we went. And on the way, they were beating up journalists.

They failed to physically attack the activists themselves, but the media were obviously on the frontlines because they were covering the events. They faced most of the aggression. Throughout the campaign we held for Tbilisi Pride, the media had been very supportive. I’ve been involved in activism for more than 10 years, and I don’t remember seeing such great standards of journalism as what the media has shown this year. The majority of the media, at least five TV channels, and pretty much all the online media were on our side. They were covering the issue [of LGBTQ+ rights] really well. Before 5 July, television stations had already announced that they would not give airtime to hate groups.

Because of this support and solidarity, far-right groups associated the free press with the queer activists behind Tbilisi Pride. This is one of the reasons why the media were targeted: for them, when it comes to the “liberal order”, as they call it, journalists, civil society organisations, and Pride organisers are all pretty similar.

Obviously, we were shocked, we were scared. I personally survived two near-death situations where my car was blocked in a traffic and crowds of about 20 people were trying to break in. The two journalists who were with me, both from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, were attacked while getting into my car.

I would say it’s really hard to say what exactly is happening: whether it was a Russian hybrid attack on Georgia’s political elite and Georgia’s declared pro-western aspirations. If you look at Russia’s media coverage, it’s very clear that they have an interest in destabilisation.

Of course, Georgians are homophobic, and Georgia is a conservative country. It’s changing but it’s still not as speedy as we want it to be. But organising hate… it’s one thing not to be happy that Pride is happening. It’s a different thing to go and physically attack people — to kill somebody.”

Natalia Antelava

Editor-in-chief of Coda Story

“I think a lot of people were shocked by how far the government has overstepped but, at the same time, there were so many signs that preceded what happened in terms of where the allegiance of the ruling party, the Georgian Dream, lay.

I remember when, on 17 May 2013, the first ever public demonstration of support for LGBTQ+ communities took place in Georgia; it wasn’t a Gay Pride, but more of a civil rights march in support of queer people. This tiny group of people were attacked by an enormous mob, including priests and representatives of the clergy who were chasing them and beating them with stools. It was absolutely hideous. I wrote about the incident and I remember digging into the Georgian Dream campaign and learning how much of it was built on the promise to reverse some of the policies of the previous Saakashvili government, to let out a lot of the disgruntled people from the jail, including priests who exhibited intolerant behaviour, such as the notorious Basili Mkalavishvili, who used to beat up Jehovah’s Witnesses back in the 1990s. For those of us who followed how much the Georgian Dream relied on the far-right to both come to power and to remain in power since, and how much encouragement they’ve given to the far-right groups, this wasn’t a surprise.

The Georgian government has financed some of these publications that have used hate speech against minorities. Over the past few years, we have seen television channels, YouTube channels, places like ALT Info and Marshall Press, and established press with far-right views, receiving some of the state funding that is available to private channels, while the more liberal publications haven’t accessed those funds. It’s quite shocking when state support goes to newsrooms that very openly preach intolerance and hatred — not just towards sexual minorities, but also towards ethnic and religious minorities. Some of these channels are very anti-Muslim and anti-Turkish. They repeat similar narratives that you hear on Russian state television. Some of them we suspect have funding from Russia and a lot of them repeat and portray the West as this snake pit of filth and decadence and decay, a place where gay marriage signals a complete destruction of everything that is moral in our societies. This is exactly how Russian state television has portrayed the West over the past decade.

What happened on 5 July sparked an interesting debate in some circles in Georgia because, of course, the Georgian far right is home-grown and some of them quote Western far-right politicians, like Marie Le Pen or Viktor Orban, when they talk about gay rights. But 20 per cent of Georgia is occupied by Russia. Everything that happens in Georgia is deeply tied with the fact that this country is living under occupation. While this is Georgia’s fight to fight, and you can’t blame everything on Russia, ultimately you can’t take Russia out of Georgian politics.

The Georgian media is now in an incredibly tricky position because the death of the [Lashkarava] made the events not just about the LGBTQ+ communities, but also about journalists. There is an amazing sense of unity among journalists now. Everyone has switched to campaign mode, and I think that’s understandable because people feel existentially threatened now: 5 July comes after a lot of pressure, the traumatic elections last year, and a traumatic pandemic year, which has made it a lot more difficult to work as a journalist in Georgia, especially if you’re opposition-minded. It’s a problem when journalists become activists, but freedom of speech is the one space where journalists can and should be activists, even if it’s a difficult line to walk.”

Giorgi Lomsadze

Caucasus correspondent for Eurasianet

“After 5 July, it doesn’t feel safe to be a reporter in Georgia. We’ve seen horrific violence in broad daylight in the centre of the city. The police did very little to prevent the attack —they were not there when it was needed. When [Lashkarava] was attacked by the mob as he was covering the day’s events, there was only one policeman present. Obviously, he could not do anything because there were dozens of men attacking a journalist and her cameraman, [Lashkarava]. We’ve never seen violence against journalists on such a scale in this country, and probably in the region more broadly.

There is a clear divide between where the media stand and where the church stands on LGBTQ+ issues in Georgia. The media have been calling out the church and some individual clerics on this issue more actively in recent years. But there is another dimension: the media have been critical of how rich the clerics get and what sort of statements they make, and so there is some anger at journalists because of that — because they’re there to speak out on a lot of issues in the Georgian Church.

These far-right crowds feel like they’re at war, and the media and them are on different sides. There are not too many conservative outlets in Georgia at the moment, except for minor platforms that give a voice to these groups.

At the point where we stand right now, things can go two ways. Speaking after the attacks, the Prime Minister said the [LGBTQ+] minority should not be “forcing” its propagandistic march on the majority. When the highest-ranking official says something like that, it hardly puts a stop to violence, to say the least. Even if [the police are] investigating far-right groups, we’re yet to see that they can do something meaningful. Some of the people who were arrested now had been arrested before. But if they’re held briefly and then released, these people won’t change their behaviour. Essentially, the Prime Minister has said that he’s on the same side as them — on the side of the Church — and this leaves room for violence in the future.

Now on the positive side, I can say that there’s been more support for LGBTQ+ communities in the media and across the public after what happened. Many people were horrified by the violence, even if they hadn’t been supporters of LGBTQ+ communities previously. The public saw, live on television, how people got beaten, and how some bigots were burning the EU flag, and pretty much owning the city that day. There is definitely more support for LGBTQ+ communities across the media and society that is far more vocal than what we’d seen before.”

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