Georgia’s public broadcaster has suspended one of their analytical news programmes soon after the far-right group behind last year’s homophobic riots threatened to end the show.
Imeda Darsalia, a journalist and anchor on the Georgian Public Broadcaster’s (GBP) ‘Akhali Kvira’ (‘new week’) programme, claimed on Thursday that the show was put on hold following a report critical of the Conservative Movement, the political party of the far-right extremist group Alt Info.
Darsalia and his colleagues recalled threatening comments left by members of Alt Info on Facebook following a 26 November programme criticising their party’s ‘anti-western and antiliberal ideology’.
Alt Info registered the Conservative Movement as a party last December. The group was largely responsible for organising mass attacks on journalists several months earlier, on 5 July, in Tbilisi. The groups have since continued a campaign of harassment against journalists, especially those critical of them.
‘We are going to deal with you very soon…’, Konstantine Morgoshia, one of the leaders of Alt Info, wrote on Facebook on 28 November addressing journalists at ‘Akhali Kvira’. ‘We promise you will not be able to continue in your profession… Your time is up.’
Darsalia said the channel’s management informed him that the ‘format’ of his show had ‘exhausted itself’ on 28 December, and that it faced ‘reorganisation’.
‘A month later, the channel did what Alt Info’s leaders, the party leaders, publicly threatened to do — to make us disappear from [our] profession’, Darsalia said.
Suspicions over the timing of the show’s suspension have been compounded by persistent rumours of links between Alt Info and the government, rumours lent credence by the lack of action taken by the authorities against the group’s violent rhetoric and actions.
While the publicly-funded GPB has been increasingly described as having a pro-government editorial line, since launching in 2018, ‘Akhali Kvira’ has taken on a number of politically sensitive topics.
Darsalia told TV channel Pirveli that ‘Akhali Kvira’ had faced persistent political censorship from the channel’s management, including no-go topics and ‘blacklisted’ commentators that they should never contact.
The Director of the GPB, Khatuna Berdzenishvili, has dismissed the allegations as ‘not serious’. The broadcaster soon followed up with a written statement insisting they had not cancelled ‘Akhali Kvira’, though they did not deny putting it on hold.
While Darsalia and his team are still employed by the channel, the future of their show remains in question.
A track record of attacking the media
Since organising attacks on journalists last July, Alt Info have continued a campaign of harassment against media critics.
On 17 February, the Conservative Movement threatened Misha Darbaidze, a journalist at TOK TV.
'Behave yourself or TOK TV will be least of your concerns’, the Facebook account of the southern regional office of the Conservative Movement wrote to Darbaidze after the channel highlighted that a local public school director was openly supporting the far-right group.
The Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics promptly condemned the threat and demanded a criminal probe into it.
Before Akhali Kvira was suspended, Alt Info did not limit their attempts to intimidate the show to online comments. On 24 December, two days before Darsalia was notified the programme was to be suspended, far-right activists associated with the group accosted Keti Tutberidze, the journalist responsible for the show’s report on them.
As she attempted to cover a demonstration against coronavirus green passes, the demonstrators, led by far-right blogger Beka Vardosanidze, turned their attention to Tutberidze encircling and harassing her.
As with the online threats from Morgoshia, no prosecutions for obstruction of a journalist’s work, which is criminally punishable in Georgia, followed the incident.
Despite the incident and the continued targetting of Tutberidze online, the Georgian Public Broadcaster made no public statement about it.
Last December, Darsalia’s employer also invited a homophobic, anti-abortion and antivax campaigner, Zviad Tomaradze, to one of their debate shows devoted to the coronavirus vaccination.
Suspicions about ties with the authorities
Speculation about Alt Info’s ties with the government have grown after none of their leaders faced criminal charges for organising and leading the violence that successfully thwarted a Pride march planned in central Tbilisi last July.
Members of Alt Info, including the current Chair of the Conservative Movement, Zurab Makharadze, were directly involved in ransacking anti-government tents outside the Parliament building on 5 July.
The incident was followed by mobs attacking journalists nearby on Rustaveli Avenue and under the instructions of Alt Info’s Konstantine Morgoshia, ransacking the offices of queer group Tbilisi Pride as well as the Shame Movement, which supported them.
Since July, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has faced criticism and calls to resign not only for allegedly shielding members of Alt Info from prosecution, but also for echoing conspiracy theories pushed by the group’s leaders.
[Read more on OC Media: Calls mount for Georgian PM's resignation following journalist's death]
Despite the violent riot and strong pressure from the EU and USA to pursue the perpetrators, Alt Info faced no problems registering a political party several months later or in opening a number of regional offices throughout the country.
[Read more on OC Media: Demands for ban of new far-right party in Georgia]
Upon launching their political groups, the Conservative Movement called for direct dialogue between Georgia and the Russian Federation while their TV channel and network on Facebook have recently disseminated a fabricated video discrediting Ukraine.
Georgian watchdog the International Society for Fair Elections And Democracy (ISFED) reported on 14 February that thanks to its status as a political party, Alt Info have begun regaining their presence on social media platforms Facebook and Instagram, where they had previously faced bans.