When Georgian Special Forces used tear gas, water jets and rubber bullets to stifle a demonstration of unarmed people on November 7, it raised international outcry and also spawned debates at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, a US-style public administration, law, and journalism school located just blocks from the clashes.
As tear gas wafted over the rooftops into the school’s courtyard, some students and faculty members made frantic phone calls, while others ran out to watch or write about the demonstration.
Mageram Zeinalov, 25, a second year GIPA student, didn’t know that classes were cancelled. At around 1:15, as he walked toward the institute, he stumbled into the center of the riot on Rustaveli Avenue. The pungent smell of gas constricted his throat and his eyes started to tear.
“Everything around was enveloped in smoke, people rushed in different directions yelling, swearing and crying,” he recalled. “In front of me a woman clasped a kid who had vomited on the pavement.”
Near the Kashueti church, across from Parliament, two policemen attacked Zeinalov. “One hit me in the stomach, another thumped me on the back and brought me down, I tried to explain that I was a journalist but they didn’t care.” Zeinalov limped down the street and got to GIPA.
The demonstrations, organized by the United Opposition, a coalition of the Georgian political parties opposed to the president, had started on November 2. Up to 70,000 people gathered for the rally, Reuters reported. The opposition’s main demands included early elections, changes in polling rules, the release of political prisoners, and judicial reforms. Later the protesters called for the president’s resignation. The 5-day protest reached its climax on the seventh of November, when the government squashed the demonstration. Five hundred and eight people went to the hospital, 145 with serious enough injuries to remain overnight, the ministry of health reported. That night Special Forces stormed the building of Imedi TV, and the government declared a state of emergency. The government justified the measures used to stanch protests by saying they were necessary to regain peace and integrity of the country. Opposition parties and international organizations – including representatives of key Western allies -- recoiled at what they called the anti-democratic steps of the authorities.
On the morning of the riots, GIPA students and instructors gathered in the institute’s cafe, glued to the TV. Levan Tsutskiridze, GIPA’s rector, rushed up and down trying to figure out whether any students had been injured.
Two blocks away, as clashes flared up between Special Forces and protesters on Rustaveli Avenue Natia Metreveli, 26, a first-year GIPA student, was out for her photojournalism class assignment. “After a lull, soldiers stomped forward thumping truncheons against glass shields,” Metreveli recalled. “Some girls slumped to their knees begging them not to raise their hands against their own people. My heart plunged and my hands were trembling while taking pictures.”
After seeing the riots on TV her instructor, Leli Blagonravova, 27, “did not walk, but rather dashed” to Rustaveli Avenue. She took pictures of the mob breaking the windows of a police car, throwing construction bricks from a pile stacked up nearby. When one of the bricks hit her in the stomach, she kept shooting. “Somehow I was not scared at all,” she said. “Though I always teach my students that they should be afraid in such situations.”
As tear-gas drifted up Rustaveli Avenue, Ketevan Beraia, 30, a 2002 GIPA graduate and a TV reporter for Georgian Public Broadcasting, unfolded her scarf and wrapped it around her cameraman Shalva Samxaradze’s face so he could shoot. “There was no room for emotions,” Beraia said. “When I saw my colleague Sopo Mdinaradze’s head gashed by a thrown rock I shouted, ‘Shalva, shoot it!’ I was a journalist first, then a person.” She also recalled the words of Amiran Murvanidze, an experienced Georgian cameraman: “When you observe an object through the scope of your camera, everything is black and white and it does not move you, but if you see the same stuff with your eyes you could go faint.”
After being dispersed, the demonstrators regrouped at Rike, on the embankment of the river Mtkvari, several kilometers from the Parliament building. Dinara Salieva, 28, a 2nd-year GIPA student who has worked for BBC’s Uzbek Service, followed the protesters on foot and witnessed the second dispersal of the rally. Car drivers were encouraging protesters by honking on their way to Rike. Salieva’s heart knocked wildly. “I was afraid of the tear gas but hoped that Special Forces wouldn’t crack down on people anymore,” she said. “I tried not to blend into the crowd and walked separately to be distinguished from the protesters.”
When she reached Rike she saw a throng flowing towards a bridge. People in camouflage chased protesters and beat them with truncheons. “It was a real mess, I tried to find a safe haven, rushing into someone’s courtyard through an open door.” But Salieva recalled the 2005 events in Andijan, Uzbekistan, when the government shot hundreds of people at a demonstration. “Compared to that, the Georgian government used a milder way of solving problems,” she said.
Before going on air, Giorgi Targamadze, 34, general director of political and social programs of Imedi and a visiting speaker at GIPA in TK, saw armed people enter the building. He rushed upstairs into the studio. “I knew I had just several minutes to do my job,” he said. “Colleagues managed to block the door of the studio, leaning the chairs against the door. For those minutes I was able to address my audience on air.” Out of breath and talking rapidly, Targamadze informed viewers about the intrusion. “While I was speaking, Special Forces slammed the door open and removed it from the frame.” Minutes later the channel was switched off.
“Without showing any documents Special Forces ordered us to stand against the wall,” recalled Eka Kadagishvili, 27, an Imedi TV journalist and a GIPA graduate in 2003. “They took away our cell phones. I saw some of Special Forces crushing TK the rooms.”
“They brought journalists outside, where people had already gathered to support the channel,” said Levan Vepkhvadze, 33, a member of the student selection committee on the faculty of journalism in GIPA and the producer of TV Imedi’s social-political program Droeba (Epoch). “They threw tear-gas in the courtyard and began shooting rubber bullets. Our journalist, Diana Trapaidze, a nine months pregnant woman, had to escape, running through the fields and mud.”
Fifteen minutes after Imedi TV had been taken off the air, another TV channel, Kavkasia, went black. “The staff hadn’t been warned beforehand,” said Nino Jangirashvili, 36, a director of Kavkasia. “We called officials, sent letters to them, but they didn’t give us any explanation.”
This was the most significant demonstration since the 2003 Rose Revolution that brought the current government to power, and it has shaken its steadiness. The dispersal of demonstrators and shuttering of TV stations raised questions domestically and internationally about the flourishing of democracy in Georgia, which is striving for NATO membership and stronger ties with international allies.
“The dispersal of the demonstration on Rustaveli Avenue was legal,” said Giorgi Margvelashvili, 38, head of the research center of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs.“ But what happened at Rike and later in the building of Imedi TV was a violation of human rights and the principles of democracy.”
That evening silence reigned over Rustaveli Avenue. While Special Forces guarded the empty, dimly lit and wet avenue, the surrounding streets were full of sluggish buses jammed with people. Policemen’s electric yellow raincoats were conspicuous from side streets.
About an hour and a half after Imedi had been taken off the air President Mikheil Saakashvili declared a state of emergency to quell anti-government protests and eliminate what he said were attempts to topple the government.
The state of emergency clamped a nine-day restriction on the news media. All media sources were limited from collecting and disseminating information. Only Georgian Public Broadcasting aired news programs.
“It’s a great responsibility to be the only source which tells people a story,” said Tinatin Noghaideli, 25, a 2005 GIPA graduate and a reporter at GPB. “To tell the truth, the declaration of the state of emergency daunted me, as I thought we would be totally circumscribed. The next day at our daily meeting I breathed freely when I learned that GPB was restricted only in broadcasting live conferences and appeals to overthrow the government.”
On November 16th the government lifted the state of emergency. All media sources resumed news reporting except Imedi. The Tbilisi City Court had suspended Imedi TV’s broadcast license for three months, charging it with fomenting the government’s overthrow.
“The proof presented by the court is absurd; it doesn’t show Imedi TV’s culpability,” said David Usupashvili, 39, the chairman of Republican Party and a visiting guest speaker at GIPA in 2002 “When the Government’s forces stormed Imedi TV station, they didn’t show any documents.”
Davit Bakradze, 35, a 1996 GIPA graduate and the State Minister for Conflict Settlement, described the November 7 events as “an important exam bolstering strength of the Georgian government.” He said it was vital to stem demonstrations to maintain security. “At Rike there were straightforward calls -- like ‘Let’s occupy the Parliament!’ -- intended to topple the government,” Bakradze said, adding that Imedi TV had fabricated news. “On November 7 Imedi reported false information that the government intended to occupy Sameba church. Journalists trumped up news that could make religious Georgian people rebel.”
According to Vepkhvadze, Imedi had not reported such news as an established fact. He added that journalist Natia Mikiashvili had relied on protesters’ reports that Special Forces had intended to enter Sameba Church. “She explained that protesters had told her about a possible intrusion.”
Ana Keshelashvili, 33, a GIPA Media Educator questioned Mikiashvili’s actions. “When you never mention whose information you rely on, you’re in trouble,” she said. “What she could do, it was showing the sources who told her about that possible intrusion. She should not use herself as a source.”
On November 16, after the state of emergency was lifted, GIPA’s students regained access to information that had been unavailable for nine days. Dinara Salieva and her coursemates worked till midnight to prepare a program about Imedi TV for Radio GIPA for the next day. “We were tired but we kept working,” she said. “People were waiting for the news about the TV that got so deeply involved in the recent events.” Salieva added that for her, covering the November events was “a good human and journalist experience.”
Tiko Tsomaia, a coordinator of Master’s Program in Journalism and Media Management at GIPA, 34, says that because of its practical, hands on approach, GIPA’s department of journalism is more like a newsroom where instructors and students are like colleagues. “During the November events we were worried about our students, but it was a good opportunity for them to grow professionally,” she said. “They used in practice what they had learned before.”
Reporting for this story was done by Natia Anastasiadi, Ketevan Aptsiauri,
Elene Chakhunashvili, Mary Emiridze, Tsira Gvasalia, Rusudan Panozishvili, and
Mariam Sutidze. Photos by Temo Bardzimashvili