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Leaked recording suggests surveillance of Georgian newsroom

15 July 2022
A screenshot from the TV Maestro programme in which the recording was published.

A leaked audio recording of employees of Mtavari discussing editorial matters suggests that the pro-opposition TV station may have been illegally monitored.

On Wednesday, Gia Gachechiladze, known as ‘Utsnobi’, released the recording on his own TV show, ‘Utsnobis kidobani’, on the pro-government TV station Maestro. Gachechiladze is a singer and conservative activist and has been an outspoken critic of the opposition United National Movement Party since they were in power 10 years ago.

Gachechiladze said he wanted to show the public ‘how these TV-sewages work’, referring to critical media outlets in Georgia.

He said the recording was given to him by a man he knows who worked in a ‘critical media’ outlet, and speculated that the man had been disturbed by ‘what is happening’, without elaborating further.

The recording includes four employees of Mtavari, host Giorgi Gabunia, producer Eka Saria, and journalists Giorgi Gvishiani and Lasha Kveseladze. In it, they discuss information about electoral fraud passed to them by a former security service official.

All four have confirmed that the conversation occurred, likely sometime between 3–5 November 2021. They denied any possibility that any of them had recorded it. They suggested the recording was conducted illegally by the State Security Service.

On Friday, US Ambassador to Georgia, Kelly Degnan, told journalists that ‘this continues to be an area of concern for, I think for all of us that are looking for a free and open society here in Georgia’.

The State Security Service has previously been accused of conducting large-scale illegal surveillance, including of journalists. A September 2021 leak of thousands of SSG files included conversations with journalists.

The Special Investigation Service said they had opened an investigation into a potential ‘unauthorised recording and eavesdropping on a private communication’ over the latest audio recording.

What is the recording about?

During the 2.5-minute recording, the four are heard discussing documents allegedly provided to them by Soso Gogashvili, who served as deputy head of the State Security Service from 2015 to late 2018. The documents concerned allegations that the ruling Georgian Dream Party was commuting the sentences of prisoners in exchange for their votes during the 2021 local elections, after he had already left.

The story discussed in the recording was broadcast on the Mtavari on 7 November 2021, entitled ‘How “the Dream” uses people and in what ways it collects votes’.

‘Yes, probationers are relieved of their sentences or pardoned in exchange for their help in the elections’, Gabunia says in the programme. In the story, he attributes the information to a confidential source in the State Security Service.

It is also suggested in the recording that Gogashvili was passing material to journalists from TV Formula and TV Pirveli.

Following the release of the recording, Gogashvili confirmed that he had passed information on alleged government wrongdoing to journalists.

‘I have handed all the evidence in my possession to all relevant organisations about the entire structure of election fraud’, he added.

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