Georgia – a cold house for press freedom?

Georgia likes to present itself as a fledgling democracy and a free and open society. But that image has been marred by persistent stories of state interference in the media, with many journalists saying they are being bullied by the authorities.

­Recently, those whose job it is to make the news in Georgia, have been becoming the news.

Jondo Nanetashvili is the founder of Trialeti TV, a small station in the north of Georgia which is critical of the government. After pressure from Mikhail Saakashvili’s regime became intolerable, Nanetashvili applied for political asylum in France a few days before the country’s president, Nicholas Sarkozy, arrived on a visit.

But he was disappointed.

“I contacted the French embassy and I was sure my problem would be resolved quickly. But I was mistaken. They didn’t make an appointment and I’ve had no news from them. If they don’t contact me in the near future I’m determined to go to other embassies,” Jondo Nanetashvili explains.

Jondo says the Saakashvili regime is putting pressure on him because of his channel's criticism of its policies, and for airing the views of the opposition as well as those of the government.

“We have to work in difficult conditions as we cannot get any comments at all from officials. When a government official gives a press conference, reporters from other channels are allowed inside to do their job, but Trialeti reporters are denied entry. We are clearly being discriminated against,” says Alina Tatunashvili, head of News at Trialeti TV.  

The Georgian government strenuously denies the claims.

And others also doubt his sincerity.

Some have branded Jondo Nanetashvili’s asylum request a publicity stunt. But he maintains he is deadly serious, and insists the Georgian authorities are after him simply because of the views aired on his channel.  And judging by the government’s recent track record, he is not alone.  

In 2009, the widow of a former Georgian president appealed to Germany’s Angela Merkel for asylum.

Numerous others have also left the country.

Trialeti has neither the resources nor the audience to seriously compete with large, pro-government channels.

Yet Jondo says he is in no doubt about the government’s motives for pressuring him.  

“It is because we’re an opposition station. They want us to give in and work for them, to promote their message. But I can’t stoop to that,” Nanetashvili says.

In a gesture of frustration, Mr Nanetashvili and his media colleagues have taken to holding mock funerals on the streets of their town.

The powerfully symbolic event is their way of mourning what they say is the death of a free press in Georgia.