On March 6, Mtavari Arkhi TV, a channel critical to the Georgian Dream Government, aired parts of a phone conversation in which Kapiton Zhorzholiani, Mayor of northwestern Mestia Municipality, is heard insulting and threatening the channel’s journalist Ema Gogokhia over her investigation of corruption allegations against the municipality officials.
Gogokhia arrived in Mestia to prepare a story after Transparency International (TI) Georgia, a local watchdog, alleged in its March 4 report that four companies related to Mestia Municipality officials, including Mestia Mayor’s sister’s Hotel Ushba company, received subsidies worth a total of GEL 769,729 (USD 230,000), as well as state procurements worth up to GEL 300,856 (USD 90,000).
According to Mtavari Arkhi TV, Gogokhia at first could not get in touch with the Municipality Mayor. The channel said Mayor Zhorzholiani later called Gogokhia himself, issuing insulting remarks, threatening her with death and offering her money to leave the country.
Moreover, Mtavari Arkhi TV said, the morning after the controversial phone call, the channel’s reporting crew, that stayed in Mestia for the night, found all four tires of its vehicle were deflated.
The Interior Ministry confirmed that a criminal investigation has been launched under Article 151, involving issuing threats, and Article 187, involving damage or destruction of property.
Responding to the aired phone talk, the Mestia Mayor accused Gogokhia entered his sister’s family premises without permission, and insulted her in front of her children. He also alleged that his family has persistently faced “slander and provocative actions” from the former ruling United National Movement (UNM) party.
“What these people [UNM] used to do through the police and law enforcement agencies, they are now doing through TV channels devoid of journalistic ethics,” he said. Zhorzholiani also said his remarks about offering the journalist financial means to leave the country “were taken out of context.”
Condemning “recent frequent cases of crimes against media representatives,” the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, a self-regulatory body of journalists, called for the immediate investigation of the incident and urged the authorities to ensure journalists’ safety.
Another prominent journalist, anchor Vakho Sanaia of Formula TV and his relatives were assaulted earlier on the night of February 24-25. A number of CSOs and opposition outfits have claimed that government officials’ rhetoric toward the media has negatively impacted journalists’ safety. President Salome Zurbaishvili and Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and other officials then condemned violence against journalists.