On 10 October, Eduard Marikashvili, a lawyer at the rights group Georgian Democracy Initiative (GDI), accused the Chief Prosecutor’s Office of cooperating with a Facebook smear group.
An image of Eduard Marikashvili allegedly taken by an employee of the Prosecutor's Office ended up as a smear photo on a Facebook page that targets government critics. That day, Marikashvili was at the hearing of the Supreme Court justice nominee Shalva Tadumadze, currently Georgia’s Chief Prosecutor.
During the hearing, United Provocative Movement, a Facebook page with almost 48,000 ‘likes’ that have systematically targeted opponents of the ruling Georgian Dream party, published a ‘compromising’ photo.
The image depicts Marikashvili listening as parliamentary opposition United National Movement (UNM) MP Tinatin Bokuchava is speaking to him.
Shortly thereafter, Marikashvili claimed that there was only one person who could have taken that photo — a woman sitting next to Bokuchava that came to the parliament hearing session together with Tadumadze.
Several hours later, Marikashvili posted a clip of video footage from the session on Facebook. The clip shows a woman sitting next to Bokuchava, apparently photographing her conversation with Marikashvili using a mobile phone.
‘Here’s the video of a Prosecutor’s Office employee likely taking a picture of me, which ended up on a page that “has no ties with the government”’, Marikashvili wrote alongside the video.
Marikashvili added that this only strengthened his suspicion that pages on Facebook which ‘engage in disinformation and smear campaigns against NGOs and government critics’ are deeply connected with the government.
According to him, the woman in the footage also accompanied Mamuka Vasadze, another Supreme Court justice nominee, at an earlier date.
Currently, Vasadze is a deputy of Chief Prosecutor Shalva Tadumadze.
‘Not answering your questions’
The ‘compromising’ photo published by United Provocative Movement Facebook page was altered to include GDI Director Giorgi Mshvenieradze.
Mshvenieradze confronted Tadumadze about the photo on the evening of 10 October, while the hearing was still in session.
'We rewound the video footage [of the session] and saw that the only one who could take that photo was an employee of the Prosecutor's Office and the public relations department’, Mshvenieradze told Tadumadze. ‘This showed yet again that the Chief Prosecutor's Office and its PR department are actively involved in smearing civil society and the opposition.’
Shalva Tadumadze, who was being vetted for a lifetime judicial position, refused to reply to Mshvenieradze and other members of the Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary (CITJ), an umbrella association of which GDI is a member.
Tadumadze cited ‘dishonest’ statements by CITJ representatives as a justification for not engaging with them on any issue.
The main focus of 10 October session were the discrepancies in the validity of the nominee’s academic credentials. Tadumadze’s diploma, from the Tbilisi Humanitarian Institute (THI), listed 1993 as his date of enrollment, but the THI was only founded in 1994.
Tadumadze insisted the document was backdated as a formality.
Closed Facebook groups
The woman shown in the video footage has been identified as Nino Kotaria, an employee at the Chief Prosecutor's Office of Georgia.
On 10 October, Radio Tavisupleba, RFE/RL’s Georgian service, cited Kotaria confirming she sat beside those photographed but said that she took no photographs, having only shot videos with her mobile phone.
‘I’ve shared [the video(s)] in a closed Facebook group. It’s a group that includes about 100 people. Beyond that, I don’t know what the connection is’, Kotaria told Tavisupleba.
Eduard Marikashvili told OC Media that Kotaria’s comment did not change his opinion.
‘The purpose of taking that photo perfectly fits the context it was published in’, he said. ‘I think that Kotaria is directly connected with the government’s troll factories’.
Earlier, a source close to government ‘troll factories’, who requested to remain anonymous informed OC Media that those individuals who are unofficially paid to attack government critics online communicate through closed Facebook groups.
Kotaria responded to OC Media’s request for further comment, stating that she did not wish to say anything further, though she did but confirm that she works at the Department of Public Relations of the Prosecutor’s Office.
Sopo Gelava, a researcher at the Media Development Foundation (MDF), a Tbilisi-based media watchdog, told OC Media that ‘in terms of message, the photo is nothing new’.
Gelava, who is also the editor of online anti-disinformation portal Myth Detector, has authored several studies that monitored the proliferation of political smear pages on social media and individual troll accounts.
‘The results of the monitoring show that their aim is to publicly discredit opposition groups, critical media, and non-governmental organisations’, Gelava said.
The latest studies by MDF reveal a number of Facebook pages that seem to post content which is consistent in timing, tone, and content, with ongoing government campaigns such as opposition to Georgian banker Mamuka Khazaradze, criticism of protests in the Pankisi valley in April, and criticism of the protests which rocked Tbilisi this past Summer.
‘It is also interesting that pro-government trolls that we identified frequently ‘liked’ or shared posts published by the United Provocative Movement page’, Gelava told OC Media. ‘Also, posts from this page were often paid content, which also raises a question about their finances’.
Gelava said that after they expose the trolls that run pages like the United Provocative Movement, the pages are temporarily deactivated. However, they are reactivated shortly thereafter, under the management of new bogus accounts.
[Read more on OC Media: Facebook trolls and fake news pages: the new ‘enemies’ of Georgian democracy]