The suicide of a teenage girl in western Georgia’s Guria Region sparked outrage over the weekend after it emerged that prior to her death she was being blackmailed. The suicide led to widespread discussions in Georgia about online blackmail, suicide prevention, whether there is a ‘culture of shame’ in Georgia, and media ethics.
The 15 year-old girl was discovered dead by her grandfather on Wednesday.
More details became known on Saturday after police announced they had arrested a local man, born in 1996, and charged him with ‘driving a person to suicide’, a crime punishable by 2–4 years in prison.
According to the Interior Ministry, after communicating with the year 11 schoolgirl online for some time via Facebook, the man threatened to send their conversation to her parents unless she sent him intimate images of herself. Police said the accused then continued to blackmail her with the pictures, which according to the authorities, ultimately drove her to end her life.
Police said the suspect had already confessed to committing the crime.
Speaking to Georgian media, his mother claimed to have known about her son’s communication with the girl, and had been eager to meet her, as she believed the girl was her son’s girlfriend. She said it had lasted for a year. ‘If only she had told me something like this was happening […] I would have slit my son’s throat myself’, the woman said in tears.
A number of people expressed outrage online at what they said was a disproportionately light punishment for the crime, even after police announced later on Saturday that they had also charged the suspect with ‘committing lewd acts with an underage person’, punishable by 7 years in prison.
‘Make the law stricter for this terrible crime’, Inga Grigolia, anchor of TV Pirveli's popular talk show Reaktsia (reaction) said via her Facebook page. ‘Punish similar bastard blackmailers and abusers, [so that] doing a similar thing never crosses their minds, so that no man dare to blackmail and mentally traumatise a woman. Do you know why this horrible crime is being committed? Because no serious punishment was brought upon anyone who blackmailed a women with her private life’.
In 2016, Grigolia was targeted along with a number of other prominent and influential women with anonymous threats to leak an intimate video of her. She challenged her blackmailers live on TV, claiming that someone wanted to silence her but that she would not be intimidated.
In June, the journalist accused law enforcement agencies of failing for years to protect her from a stalker, who ended up in psychiatric treatment but still managed to contact her by phone from the clinic.
The girl’s suicide was first reported by the media on 15 August, but prior to the police statement about their arrest, the possible motive behind the teenager taking her life was kept private.
There was public outcry after ‘exclusive’ coverage by Rustavi 2’s Kurieri (courier) showed pictures of the victim’s face and extensively cited her suicide note, which she left for her parents several hours before taking her life. Kurieri also broadcasted comments from the defendant’s lawyer recounting the sexual details of their online communications. The information was re-published by a number of online media outlets.
Lasha Kavtaradze, an analyst at Georgian media watchdog Media Checker, told OC Media that coverage of the story had been ‘sensationalist’. ‘Superficial media coverage can enhance copycat tendencies in relation to youth suicide’, said Kavtaradze.
The Charter of Journalistic Ethics, which provides guidelines for self-regulation of independent media in Georgia, explicitly advises against reporting places or methods of death, the contents of notes by the deceased, or specific reasons for a suicide that could ‘suggest to others in a similar situation that suicide is a solution’. The Charter also urges media coverage of suicide to include relevant available treatment services.
‘To my knowledge, in their articles and video reports covering the story, no Georgian media outlets provided comments from experts, professional advice, or appropriate information related to the prevention of suicide’, Kavtaradze told OC Media. He added that by publishing interviews with the victim’s neighbours and the suspect’s lawyer which included language that was not sensitive, much of the media created ‘an impression that the victim of the suicide carried some of the blame, as she was engaged in an online relationship with her abuser’.
Lack of support
Many online discussions of the incident blamed the conservatism of Georgian parents for making their daughters’ sexual lives taboo, something that some suggested could have prevented the victim from telling her family about being blackmailed.
‘Young girls don't end their lives just because of blackmail. Young girls kill themselves when they have no hope that we and their dear ones have their back’, wrote journalist Gvantsa Doluashvili.
‘Maybe we should tell young girls that they have the right to a private life, the right to like someone, to flirt with others by chatting and with pictures and videos?’ wrote Baia Pataraia, head of women’s rights group Sapari. ‘Maybe we should tell them that no one has the right to blackmail them by threatening to make their private communications public? […] Maybe we should teach them to trust their parents and to share with them the problems they can’t solve alone?’, she wrote in her blog.
On 20 August, the victim’s mother made a public plea on her Facebook page not to blame her family for her daughter’s suicide. ‘I guess she became afraid of public opinion, because there was no deed that her own family wouldn’t understand’, said her mother.
Last year, the Georgian Public Defender’s Office identified suicide and attempted suicide among minors as ‘one of the most painful and problematic’ issues facing the country, noting a 20% increase in teen suicides from 2016. Their 2017 Report named slow provision of support services as one underlying factor in the increase.
In a 20 August statement, Public Defender Nino Lomjaria stressed the need for a hotline with ‘friendly’ and ‘qualified’ staff that would be available round the clock to minors experiencing bullying, cyber-bullying, sexual harassment, or other forms of psychological and physical abuse.