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Crackdown on Georgia’s free media forces journalists into opposition

Activists in Georgia say the country’s free media is being killed off by the government, as journalists are forced to either tow the leadership’s line or be branded as opposition.
­ “The death of free Georgian media” is the message of a mock-up funeral being held in Tbilisi.The mourners are lamenting how lonely their struggle is. “The problem is that society is so intimidated by the authorities, people aren't ready to react the right way to violations of human rights,” says Nana Kakabadze, from the Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights group. One such alleged violation happened to Joni Nanetashvili, one of the co-owning brothers of Trialeti TV, an independent regional station that is known for its criticism of government policy. Nanetashvili’s colleagues and family claim he was stopped by police on patrol and then beaten. “They don’t like criticism; they want us to cover news which is good for the government’s PR,” says Nanetashvili’s brother Badri. “And they don’t want to answer harsh questions or meet the population’s needs.”Trialeti's owners also claim that one of its camera crews was beaten while covering the removal of Stalin's statue from the Georgian town of Gori earlier this year. However, not all journalists agree that media outlets in the country are controlled by the government. “I don't get it when they're talking about lack of freedom of speech in Georgia,” says Ekaterina Kotrikadze, head of news at PIK Channel. “We all know that there are two television stations here in Georgia which are strictly opposition.” But such polarization of the media, where those outlets that do not support the government agenda inevitably make it to the opposition pool, is precisely what government critics say is the problem. “There is no independent media, there is either pro-governmental or opposition media,” says Nana Devdariani, Georgia’s former human rights ombudsman. “We have no media source in Georgia, which has its own policy, is balanced and does not subordinate to any party.” Devdariani adds that this situation arrived with the new government of Mikhail Saakashvilli. “Those who came to power after the Rose revolution, loudly speaking about freedom of speech, human rights and democracy, started tightening the screws very quickly,” she says. "The whole Georgian TV industry quickly changed bosses and became totally controlled by the new authorities.”