In 7 July in a prime-time news show “Postscriptum” Giorgi Gabunia, anchor of the Rustavi 2 TV has insulted President of Russia Vladimir Putin using swear words. Georgia’s top level officials were quick to react to this act that they call a “provocation”. A protest, involving some pro-governmental activists is taking place at the TV station.
UPDATE: 02:19 Tbilisi time: Rustavi 2 went off air. Director General Nika Gvaramia said they are suspending broadcasts as several journalists and cameramen were attacked by protesters. “The Ministry of Interior could not ensure our security (…) there were threats of break-in into the building, things were thrown at the building,” Gvaramia said.
The unexpected escalation comes at a tense moment, when Tbilisi protests, triggered by the appearance of the Russian MP in Parliament Chair’s seat, are now in their 18th day. Russia has decried the protests as “Russophobic” and cut air travel, citing threat to Russian tourists.
Officials, ruling party respond
Georgian officials have promptly responded to the controversial Rustavi 2 broadcast, posting nearly identical messages on social media.
“I consider this broadcast is an unequivocally a provocation, an extremely dangerous message, directed against Georgia’s peace and security,” Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze wrote on Facebook, expressing hope that “all Georgian citizens and all of Georgia’s friends would distance themselves from this adventurism” and consider it “a politically dangerous provocation.”
“This is a war that the provocateurs are waging against their own country, playing dirty and disgusting games with their state and their citizens,” incensed PM Bakhtadze wrote.
Speaker Archil Talakvadze termed Gabunia’s broadcast a “direct provocation” aimed “against own country and people”. “There are no questions left – this political group is acting against Georgia”, Speaker Talakvadze wrote, pointing accusatory finger at the United National Movement (UNM) – an opposition party that Rustavi 2 is often associated with.
Vice-speaker Tamar Chugoshvili echoed the teammates by saying on Facebook the broadcast was a “provocation aimed at “destabilization of the country”, coming from “destructive forces”.
Tbilisi Mayor, Georgian Dream Secretary Kakha Kaladze did not mince his words either, saying via Facebook, that Gabunia’s statement was a provocation “veiled under the guise of patriotism” – “it is unacceptable, to leave the provocation of this magnitude without a harsh reaction”, Kaladze said.
“This has a simple name – being an enemy of one’s own country. We have seen how the country has been brought to the most difficult state by the same political force already through similar enmity. We can not allow this to happen for the second time!”, Kaladze writes.
President Salome Zurabishvili also said “one can not protect the interests of the country through aggression, destabilization and unrest.”
“Splitting the country into two camps, inciting confrontation outside the country and in the region is unacceptable from our side! Does this serve to provoke another war, or at a payback for the failed coup? In any case, this is an act directed against state! He [Gabunia] has allowed himself something that is unacceptable for Georgia! This is called damaging the interests of one’s state!” Zurabishvili posted on her Facebook page.
Foreign Ministry Reaction
Somewhat unusually, Georgian Foreign Ministry has responded to a domestic development by issuing a late night statement saying “we strongly condemn the expressions used by TV Company Rustavi 2 that have nothing in common with the freedom of speech and represent a provocation pure and simple, which is aimed at mounting tensions in already complex Georgian-Russian relations”.
The Foreign Ministry called the “international community and all international organizations working on the press freedom” to “give proper appraisal” to the actions of the TV channel and the journalist “who massively ignored the international professional norms and standards”.
“It is apparent” laments the Foreign Ministry, that “a targeted action is taking place aimed at fomenting the perception of instability in the country, while, the Government of Georgia working in its national interests, is trying to de-escalate tensions.”
Words uttered by Gabunia on Rustavi 2 were criticized by the opposition as well.
Sergi Kapanadze, of European Georgia, condemned the wording in his Facebook reaction, but said that the governments “irrational” reaction is “no less concerning”.
“It is no less concerning that every such showman-like incident is triggering irrational response and confused messages on Facebook – “Rustavi 2 is financed from Russia!”; “Putin is going to bomb us!”, “They are preparing the basis for Russian aggression!”, “Rustavi 2 is being paid by Bidzina [Ivanishvili, leader of the ruling Georgian Dream'” – I cope a better and more dignified day would dawn tomorrow,” MP Kapanadze wrote.
Another member of European Georgia, MP Zurab Chiaberashvili said “there is no pretext that would justify the government’s interference into freedom of speech”.
“Public discussion and condemnation [of Gabunia’s words]? – Certainly. Statement by the journalistic ethics charter – Definitely. But (!) the government can not touch anyone – neither Rustavi 2, nor “Asaval-Dasavali” [a radical/nativist tabloid]. Neither the government, nor the Orcs [demeaning term used to denote government-sponsored radical groups inciting violence – Civil.ge] that are orchestrated by it,” Chiaberashvili wrote.
Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili also reacted on Facebook saying “while combating Russian imperialism and occupation, our media shall not become the likeness of the hysterical Russian media! Truth is on our side, and this truth needs to be told in a civilized manner! Aiming to shock and being hysterical will only harm us!”
Journalistic Ethics Charter statement
The Journalistic Ethics Charter (JEC), a self-regulation body condemned Gabunia’s broadcast, saying it damages not only Rustavi 2, but ethical journalism standards as a whole, undermining “confidence and respect towards journalists, propagating hate speech.”
„Unethical and irresponsible statements by the anchor are fueling the government’s drive towards limiting the freedom of speech (…) especially as many officials spoke recently of weakening self-regulation [in favor of government regulation],” JEC said.
Rally at Rustavi 2
Shortly after the controversial broadcast, a rally under banner “We want stability!” was announced by the hastily created Facebook page. The activists are currently gathered at Rustavi 2 TV building to protest Gabunia’s broadcast.
Rustavi 2 statement
Rustavi 2 Director General Nika Gvaramia made an extensive video statement following the broadcast, saying “the Channel is categorically opposed to the form of expression employed by Mr. Gabunia, but not to his opinion. We consider that it [the form employed – Civil.ge] does not match the channel’s editorial line and journalistic standards (…) and although [the Channel] shares Mr. Gabunia’s attitude towards Russia (…) we consider this kind of self-expression unacceptable. (…) We will review the case in the frames of self-regulation and will take an appropriate decision,” Gvaramia said.