How should the Tblisi authorities respond to the police assaults on reporters covering anti-government protests at the end of May? Boyko Boev reports
The website of Georgian president Miheil Saakasvhili contains links to reports by The Economist, The Times and The Wall Street Journal praising the authorities for their pro-democratic reforms. Georgia can indeed be commended for its media laws, which are in line with international standards. Regrettably, these laws did not stop the police from using force against journalists covering the anti-government protests in May 2011.
On 26 May the Police Special Forces violently dispersed anti-governmental demonstrators in Tbilisi. Tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons were used against the protesters who were led by several opposition parties. The police action started a few minutes after the permit for the protestors’ rally expired. The authorities explained that the protestors had to quickly vacate Rustaveli Avenue to make way for the military parade scheduled in the morning. Four people died during the police operation and 37 were injured. The police used force not only against protesters but also against journalists reporting at the scene of the demonstration. According to NGO reports, eight journalists were injured: Tamaz Kupreishvili from Netgazeti newspaper and Darejan Paatashvili from Interpressnews, Nato Gogelia from Guria News, Zaira Mikatadze from Resonance newspaper, David Mchedlidze from Media.ge, Diana Khoperia from radio Obiektivi, and Beka Sivsivadze and Giorgi Mamatsashvili from the Asaval-Dasavali newspaper.
Georgian authorities failed to ensure the safety of the journalists reporting at the anti-governmental demonstration. Will the authorities bring to justice those responsible for the use of force against reporters?
According to the Council of Europe and UNESCO’s guidelines on state accountability in cases of violence against media workers, the authorities should respond both to the physical attack on journalists and to the interference with their right to free expression. Under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, freedom of expression can be restricted only when it is necessary for maintaining public order. Even if the protestors broke the law and the use of force was thus justified, the journalists should not have been attacked and prevented from fulfilling their professional duties.
The authorities should bring to justice the police officers who assaulted the journalists on 26 May. If the police operation was not properly planned and the officers did not ensure proper communication with journalists for their safety, the chief police officers should also be brought to justice as they have a responsibility to train all of the police force to protect journalists and ensure their safety.
Not only should the judiciary act to protect freedom of expression, but the president and parliament should also condemn the attack and hold the government and the ministry of interior politically accountable for the violations of media freedom.
For journalists to be adequately protected against violence it is important that the investigation is prompt. According to international standards, there should be no statute of limitations for crimes aimed to prevent the exercise of freedom of information and expression. Delaying the investigation and punishment of the perpetrators will contribute to the atmosphere of impunity.
Justice for police assaults toward the media is needed not only for the injured journalists. It is needed for all of society because the safety of journalists affects us all. The links to international media on the website of the Administration of the Georgian President reveal that Miheil Saakasvhili and his team appreciate the media. Now they have to show they can protect the media’s freedom.
Boyko Boev is Senior Legal Officer with Article 19
Read ARTICLE 19’s letter to President Saakashvili in English here
Read ARTICLE 19’s letter to President Saakashvili in Georgian here