The State Security Service of Georgia (SSG) is investigating opposition-leaving TV channel Mtavari Arkhi for ‘sabotage’ after the channel aired a story the authorities say was fabricated.
In a broadcast on 20 June, the channel claimed the government offered money to residents of Marneuli Municipality whose relatives had recently died to lie that their deaths were caused by COVID-19.
They speculated the alleged scheme was meant to artificially increase the number of recorded coronavirus deaths as a pretext to postpone October’s parliamentary elections.
Marneuli Municipality has been among the areas of Georgia worst hit by COVID-19.
‘My child passed away because of heart problems, however, doctors offered we write coronavirus as the cause of death’, Mtavari Arkhi quoted one unnamed woman as saying.
The programme’s narrator then claimed that the woman was approached by the local officials with the same offer.
On Thursday evening, the SSG announced they had interviewed the subjects of the Mtavari Arkhi story. They said the subjects had told them that the channel had misquoted them and purposefully mistranslated their comments.
‘They said that they had told the journalist they did not have information about doctors and officials offering money to family members of the deceased in exchange for registering coronavirus as the cause of death’, the statement said.
‘Despite this, Mtavari Arkhi deliberately translated the interviews incorrectly and covered the story with dramatically different interpretations, because of which these persons expressed a lot of dissatisfaction and demanded legal action follow.’
The SSG said that the programme was designed to discredit the government and to spread panic.
They said their investigation on charges of sabotage were continuing and that further legal steps may follow.
On 23 June, the General Director of Tbilisi’s Infectious Diseases hospital, Tengiz Tsertsvadze accused Mtavari Arkhi of not only lying but committing a serious crime by ‘creating false evidence’.
‘This [report] has crossed all lines. How can one accuse the government and doctors, who are doing everything possible and impossible to save patients, of attempting to increase the death toll? To accuse this of a country with the lowest death toll per million in Europe’, said Tsertsvadze.
The SSG has claimed the new line of questioning was part of an investigation launched on 19 March after members of the public received false information regarding the coronavirus via SMS.
According to a statement by the Health Ministry on 16 March, recipients were told that the government was going to announce a country-wide quarantine.
The SSG said that the aim of the messages was to trigger panic and chaos.
Nika Gvaramia, the General Director of Mtavari Arkhi, has responded to the investigation by calling on the opposition, non-governmental organisations, and the Public Defender to act, describing what was happening as the ‘next level of dictatorship’.
Kaladze’s ‘campaign against fake news’
After the SSG went public with the allegations, the General Secretary of the ruling Georgian Dream Party and Mayor of Tbilisi Kakha Kaladze announced that the Mayor’s Office was launching a new project to combat fake news.
Kaladze posted an image on his official Facebook page announcing a Facebook live event on the topic on 30 June.
The image depicts the logos of three TV channels that have been critical of the government — Mtavari Arkhi (‘main channel’), which it named the ‘The main lie’, Formula, dubbed ‘the formula of lies’, and TV Pirveli (‘first channel’), dubbed as ‘the first lie’.
The logos were also edited in a way to appear as though they are bleeding, however, Kaladze claimed later on Thursday evening that it was not blood but ‘lies’ dripping from them.
The Coalition for Media Advocacy, who advocate for free speech, issued a statement on Thursday criticising Kaladze for using his political authority to attack the media.
‘We believe that such campaigns from high political officials against critical media outlets do not correspond to the expectations of a democratic society,’ said the statement.
‘Moreover, there is a risk of inciting aggression — verbal and physical attacks — against journalists.’
In a separate investigation, the SSG summoned several journalists from TV Pirveli who formerly worked at Mtavari Arkhi for questioning on 24 June.
It followed a report broadcast by TV Pirveli about Vasambeg Bokov, a 37-year-old Russian citizen who was arrested in Tbilisi for allegedly plotting to assassinate Mtavari Arkhi host Giorgi Gabunia.
Nodar Meladze, the author of the report, said after the questioning that the SSG had asked whether they had been ordered to produce the report by someone else or if it had been their own initiative.