In suffering Georgia, free speech finds voice

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TBILISI, Georgia - They've suffered so much in silence - sporadic electricity, freezing apartments, corruption swallowing up the nation's assets, going for months without receiving their tiny salaries. But when freedom of speech appeared threatened, citizens of this small country finally made themselves heard.

A few weeks ago, a crusading television reporter who broadcasts a weekly program called "60 Minutes" held a news conference to announce that government officials had threatened to kill him unless he dropped his corruption investigations and left the country.

Even the reporter, Akaki Gogichaishvili, was surprised at what happened next. The people of Georgia took him under their personal protection.

"There were rallies for four or five days in front of the president's office," Gogichaishvili says. "Housewives, students, organizations demonstrated across the country. I was very touched. I knew I would have to go on, doing my best to oppose the whole terrible situation in this country."

Georgia, a country of 5.4 million people on Russia's southern border, has known little but deepening hardship and ever-growing corruption since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. According to recent estimates, per capita income is $930 a year. In winter, the country is hard-pressed to provide heat, and the electricity comes on for perhaps two hours in the evening, leaving people walking to apartments as high as eight floors, sitting in candlelight, living without refrigerators.

Georgians blame their president, Eduard Shevardnadze, former Soviet foreign minister and hero of perestroika, for allowing the corruption. At the same time, they recently re-elected him, believing that only he has the authority to prevent an outbreak of civil war among Georgia's fractious regional and ethnic powers.

The 33-year-old Gogichaishvili started his program on the independent Rustavi-2 channel in December, appropriating the name "60 Minutes" from CBS. "It was a symbol of investigative reporting," says Gogichaishvili, who had done post-graduate work in America on a U.S. State Department program for journalists.

At first, the station devoted few resources to the program. It was Gogichaishvili and a cameraman - when the cameraman had spare time. Gogichaishvili desperately wished he had only 30 minutes, and not a whole hour on Sunday evening, but he was determined to call his program "60 Minutes."

"From the first show, it had huge resonance," Gogichaishvili says. "After that first show, I got a car, a cameraman and a reporter."

His programs immediately infuriated the authorities.

On one of the first, he reported on what he called the gas mafia. Russia had turned off the gas it supplies to Georgia in November because of unpaid bills. It was turned on, Gogichaishvili reported, only after the Georgian government assumed millions of dollars of debts accumulated by private gas companies.

"Our investigation seeks to answer the question why the government has decided to take over the debts of private companies," Gogichaishvili told his viewers. "It emerged that behind these companies are the interests of high-ranking officials. They colluded with the Russians to run up a large debt, which is to be repaid by selling off industrial enterprises."

In January, he described how the minister of communications and his friends formed a holding company that bought up the postal service, circumventing the bidding process.

He accused government officials of renovating government-owned buildings with government money, then selling them for low prices to their cronies.

In his March 26 broadcast, he accused the Writers' Union - which was getting a large government subsidy - of corruption.

Then, he examined the pension system, discovering that huge numbers of people - about 20 percent of the population - were on the pension list and that as many as 25 percent of those on the list were dead.

After that program, the president's wife called, infuriated. "She said she was getting tearful letters from pensioners," Gogichaishvili says. "She said I was ruining the country."

When he reported further on the gas story, Gogichaishvili says, Georgia's deputy prosecutor-general called him in and told him he was under investigation for his reporting. The next morning, word reached Gogichaishvili that his life was in danger. "The message was that I better leave the country right away or there would be an order to kill me," he says.

Deeply frightened, he started calling friends, trying to figure out what to do. One suggested that he talk to Ann Imse, an American journalist from Colorado who was spending a few months in Tbilisi as professional in residence for the International Center for Journalists, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"I listened to his story," says Imse, "and I said, 'You have two choices. You can flee the country, or you can fight back with everything you have."'

She asked how many viewers he had, and when he replied 500,000 - about 10 percent of the population - she knew what he should do.

"I said, 'Akaki, they're afraid of you. Have a press conference, call the newspapers, tell the world what's happening,"' Imse says. "I advised him to make it clear killing him would not take the show off the air, that they would have to kill dozens of people."

Six hours later, Gogichaishvili was giving a press conference, with 30 journalists listening to his story. The public reaction, Imse says, was immediate and visible. The next day, 600 demonstrators paraded in front of Shevardnadze's office, demanding protection for Gogichaishvili.

Eventually, the president ordered the security services to guarantee the reporter's safety. Shevardnadze also appeared on television, saying he supported freedom of speech. The deputy prosecutor general has denied threatening Gogichaishvili, and the reporter is pursuing his targets as hard as ever.

"Everywhere you go," he says, "corruption, corruption, corruption, at every level. In every field you see the same people, the same names."

Other journalists are not following his crusading example, Gogichaishvili says, although they have been reporting the story about him.

"In 1994 and 1995, gangs would go into newspaper offices and threaten reporters," he says. "Now they're using economic and financial tools. Unfortunately, those turn out to be much more effective."

There's little advertising in the papers, so they depend on the government and various interest groups. The result has been the loss of independent voices.

"One good thing our program has done," Gogichaishvili says, "is bring people hope that you can say something and be heard, at least by other citizens, if not by the government."

Gogichaishvili has many ideas to pursue. During the civil war in 1993, the Georgia legislature appropriated millions of dollars to build a factory that would produce semi-automatic rifles. The money was soon spent - without any sign of a factory, he says.

Numerous government officials, he says, earning paltry government salaries of $50 a month drive fancy cars and live in palatial homes. There's no end of investigations for him, he says.

"Will anything change?" he asks. "No. I'm very pessimistic. We are just building a feudal system. The government says at least there isn't war, and people stay quiet.

"I don't think my program will bring changes, but I think I should keep on doing it - just in case."

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