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Photojournalist Espionage Case Ends in Farce

By Messenger Staff
Thursday, July 28
There's never a dull moment with the current Georgian administration. One scandal follows another. Stories permanently circulate about Russian spies or foiled terrorist attacks. July was dedicated to the photojournalists’ spy case which started suddenly and ended abruptly. In just fourteen days the photojournalists were detained, multiple protests held, accusations denied, then eventually confessed, hearings heard, bail granted, and now finally all have been released on suspended sentences.

The photographers' case had the stamp of confidentiality from the beginning and although journalists and the opposition demanded the veil of secrecy be lifted this was not forthcoming. There were several controversial and contradictory statements made from law enforcement bodies. Western diplomats as well as NGOs involved in human rights became interested in the case. With pressure mounting, plea bargains were reached between the prosecutor’s office and the accused after only two weeks and eventually the photojournalists were released. They did not even pay bail.

Independent media commenting on this event state that the authorities were forced into retreat by local and international pressure. Some analysts argue that there were not enough solid and convincing arguments to persuade anyone as to the guilt of the journalists. During his meeting with journalists the Minister of Internal Affairs, Vano Merabishvili, promised that serious and firm evidence would be released during the court hearing and all questions would be answered. But this never happened. A free and transparent court case allegedly would have brought embarrassment to the prosecutor's office.

Instead, according to some, it was decided to release the photojournalists, explaining that they had admitted their guilt, and had given some valuable information to the police in return for a pardon. Moreover, the authorities could fall back on the fact that the very sensitivity of the espionage conducted meant a court case should be avoided and proceedings brought to a close as quickly as possible.

Other versions of events are doing the rounds. Perhaps the whole debacle was intended to increase the feeling of fear among society as well as the media. On this view, the law enforcement bodies never intended to bring solid evidence against the accused. Instead, they just detained them, labeled them, and forced them to admit their guilt. A big portion of the Georgian population doubts the photo journalists were ever spies. But now other photojournalists will think twice before taking any photos or moreover before sending them to any western media outlet. Striking fear into the media also appears convenient with approaching election periods up ahead.

If this version of events is right, then far from being an embarrassment the outcome of the photojournalist debacle will have positive effects for the government. With the media cowed, now is the time for NGOs to step up in monitoring the excesses of the powerful. As the chairman of the Human Rights Protection Center, Ucha Nanuashvili, stated the current administration has been spoiled through the unconditional support from the West, and that must now change.