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Journalists and NGOs demand declassifying photojournalists’ case

By Mzia Kupunia
Tuesday, July 12
Journalists and nongovernmental organizations on Monday demanded the lifting of a “secret” classification from the detained photojournalists’ case. Human rights groups representatives and journalists gathered at the Interior Ministry premises on July 11 requesting a meeting with the Interior Minister, Vano Merabishvili, however the Ministry officials told journalists that the meeting would not take place as the Minister was not in Tbilisi.

Meanwhile, the Coalition for Media Advocacy, a group of 11 NGOs, also called on the authorities to lift “secret” classification from the photographers’ case. “The photo reporters case has triggered unprecedented public interest, as far as its results will directly be reflected on the prospects of the development of free media in Georgia,” the statement released by the Coalition reads “None of the evidence released by the Interior Ministry on July 9, has convinced the society that the accusation [against the photojournalists] is grounded… We consider that due to the lack of information, society is not able to fully assess the events and make proper conclusions. The information is fragmented and unconvincing. This fact makes us think that the Government is purposely hiding the details of the case from the public and is pressuring representatives of the Georgian media,” it continues.

The Coalition for Media Advocacy said in its statement that if the details of the case are not made public in the nearest future, the action will be considered as “direct pressure of the government on the Georgian media outlets and Georgian journalists and the detained persons will be considered as the prisoners of conscience.”

One of the detained photojournalists, Giorgi Abdaladze, who was working on a freelance basis for the Foreign Ministry of Georgia, said the detention is connected with the photos he and his colleagues shoot during the police crackdown of police on demonstrators on May 26. In a letter published in the Kviris Kronika newspaper, Abdaladze said several of the photos shot by him during the rally dispersal was published in a number of foreign media outlets.

“Several scandalous photos were also shot by Zura Kurtsikidze, Shakh Aivazov and the photo reporters of France Presse and Reuters. However, I should admit that the best photos were shot by Irakli Gedenidze [President’s photographer, who is also detained]…Irakli shot a photo, which shows a person killed by the riot police. Then he sold this photo to Zurab Kurtsikidze [EPA’s photojournalist]. The name of the photo was not mentioned, however every photojournalist knew that it was shot by Irakli. Apparently, Saakashvili found out that Irakli disseminated the photos shot during the rally dispersal in the international press and did not forgive this to him,” Abdaladze’s letter reads.

However, the Georgian authorities have reiterated that the arrest has “nothing to do with journalistic activities.” Speaking to the Kommersant newspaper, head of the Analytical Department of the Georgian Interior Ministry, Shota Utiashvili said that the detainees are employees of the governmental institution but not journalists. “I don’t understand why you call them journalists? The President’s personal photographer is a person who spends half of his working day with the President. He has access to certain information, like other employees, who work at the President’s administration and the law prohibits them to disseminate this information,” Utiashvili said.

The Interior Ministry spokesperson told the Russian newspaper, that the documents, which were allegedly passed to the special agencies by the photojournalists, were classified as “secret”. “Anyone, who can read will understand that this is secret information. Tell me how an ordinary photographer should pass on the plans of the president’s administration, his route and the schedule of his meetings, as well as a list of the citizens of Georgia who work at the UN,” Utiashvili noted.

Earlier last week, the Georgian President’s press speaker, Manana Manjgaladze also denied any links between the detention of the photojournalist and their media activities. “I cannot speak in detail about this very sensitive ongoing case, but there is one point I should make very clear: this case is about a serious infiltration of our institutions, not about journalism or media activities,” she said “The fact that the suspects were photographers has been stressed, but they were not charged yesterday for anything connected to their activity as photographers. It is possible that they will be charged for passing confidential information - written documents in this case, or confidential agendas - to an organization identified as spying network,” Manjgaladze added. President’s press speaker said that the case would have been handed “exactly the same way” if the detainees were occupying any other position. “The people arrested were not at all known for expressing any political view and it is outrageous to connect their arrest in any way with the question of freedom of media,” Manjgaladze said.