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A Rustavi 2 journalist and cameraman were attacked by employees of a railway construction company near Khashuri, in central Georgia on Wednesday. The news crew said employees confiscated their cameras, demanded they delete footage, and beat them.
The company, China Railway 23rd Bureau, said their workers were trying to ‘ensure the safety’ of the journalists who ‘trespassed and provoked the workers’.
Rustavi 2, an opposition-leaning TV channel, reported on Wednesday that journalist Eka Gagua and cameraman Levan Kalandia were beaten by the company’s workers in the village of Kvishkheti, 140 km east of Tbilisi.
China Railway 23rd Bureau is a local branch of a subsidiary to the Chinese state-owned China Railway Construction Corp. It has been accused of breaching workplace health and safety rules numerous times in the past.
In 2016, police investigated the company’s employees for attacking four local people in the village of Zvare near the town of Kharagauli.
In footage aired by Rustavi 2 on Wednesday, the journalist is seen wrestling with the company employees over a camera and microphone they had taken away. The TV station reported their cameras were confiscated for several hours.
‘The conflict started after we entered an area which didn’t have any warning sign that we weren’t allowed there. We started filming and talked with several people. That’s why the company doing the construction work here, probably with violations, attacked us. They wanted to take away our memory cards. When we refused to provide them, they started using force’, said Rustavi 2 journalist Eka Gagua.
In a statement, China Railway 23rd Bureau said the crew had trespassed on an area where presence without safety equipment was forbidden.
‘Despite numerous warnings from our employees, the news crew did not leave the area and tried to provoke our workers into the conflict. We are sorry for what happened, our goal was to ensure the journalists’ safety on the restricted construction site. We are ready to cooperate with the people concerned’, the statement said.
On Thursday, police arrested two of the company’s employees for violence and unlawful interference in a journalist’s professional activities.
Police said they had arrested the acting head of the Khvishkheti site and an interpreter.
Controversies around the company
This was not the first time employees of China Railway 23rd Bureau have been investigated for violence. In November 2016 three of the company’s workers were arrested for injuring four locals who were carrying wood home.
Workers went on a strike following the incident demanding a change in the company’s management. Work resumed after 16 people from the management were fired.
Railway workers at the site, some of who have described the job as ‘living hell’, have striked numerous times demanding better working conditions.
In January, workers protested ‘severe violations’ of the labour code, and an unsafe working environment. On 19 January, five days after roughly fifty workers at the site halted work, striking workers told OC Media that overall conditions on the site were ‘unbearable’.
[Read more about railway workers and labour rights on OC Media: Welcome to ‘hell’: working on a Georgian railway construction site]
The construction site is a part of a project to modernise Georgia’s main east-west railway line, from Tbilisi to Batumi. The main construction work is being carried out on the Zestaponi–Kharagauli and Moliti–Kvishkheti sections of the railway. The cost of the project is 260 million Swiss francs ($278 million).