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PRESS SILENCED IN STATE OF EMERGENCY

Regional and international press freedom groups are demanding that the Georgian government immediately restore all news broadcasts and lift a state of emergency imposed after police violently broke up anti-government protests in the capital last week.

Riot police in the capital Tbilisi used batons, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons to disperse demonstrators who had gathered on 7 November for a sixth day to call for President Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation amid accusations of authoritarianism and corruption, report the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES), ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF).

The government also forced two private news stations off the air before declaring a state of emergency, claiming there had been a coup attempt masterminded by Russia.

"Even in a time of crisis, Georgians have a right to protest peacefully without being beaten by the police," says Human Rights Watch. "The government does not have a carte blanche to restrict fundamental freedoms just because it is in crisis."

In a surprise announcement the day after the clashes, President Saakashvili said he would move the next presidential election up to 5 January 2008, nearly a year earlier than scheduled. His announcement, which followed strong Western criticism of his use of force against demonstrators and his declaration of emergency powers, appeared to diffuse the week-old crisis, says Human Rights Watch.

The president also said the state of emergency would be lifted "within days."

Police appeared to have targeted journalists and independent observers in the crackdown and clashes, Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 say. More than 500 people sought medical treatment, including Georgia's human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari, who believes he was attacked because he regularly criticised the government for its human rights abuses. Two cameramen from Imedi TV who were beaten by police had to be hospitalised, one with severe injuries.

According to the press freedom groups, journalists were physically barred from filming the protests. Police also confiscated and destroyed several television cameras.

The two opposition television stations, Imedi TV and Kavkasia were forcibly taken off the air for broadcasting extensive coverage of the demonstrations and the police response. Imedi reported that riot police had raided the station, even holding guns to staff members' heads. According to CPJ, Imedi TV is owned by Badri Patarkatsishvili, a wealthy financier who is believed to have provoked the government's closure of the station when he publicly said he would finance an overthrow of the "illegal state of Georgia." Patarkatsishvili has now declared that he may run for president in the January election.

In the aftermath of the violence, public assembly as well as television and radio station broadcasts were banned by Saakashvili's 15-day emergency order, with the exception of the state-run Georgia Public Broadcaster. BBC, CNN and other international news broadcasts were also suspended.

Although the restrictions on media do not apply to newspapers or the Internet, Human Rights Watch says most newspapers have a small circulation, and only 7 percent of the country has access to the Internet.

Visit these links:
- ARTICLE 19: http://tinyurl.com/3yx8uf
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/yqvm9w
- CJES: http://www.cjes.ru/lenta/?year=2006&lang=eng
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/36ab6l
- IFJ: http://www.ifj.org/default.asp?index=5472&Language=EN
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=24300
(Photo: Georgian soldiers in central Tbilisi on 8 November, the day after the president had declared a 15-day state of emergency. Photo courtesy of Agence France-Presse)

(13 November 2007)

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