Paris-based media watchdog, Reporters without Borders, said it was “disturbed” by the arrest of four Georgian photojournalists for allegedly passing confidential information and called on the Georgian authorities to provide transparency into the case, which has been classified as “secret”.
“While it is impossible for the time being to take a position on the substance of the charges, we believe that the utmost transparency is needed to dispel suspicions that these arrests were politically motivated,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement on July 8.
“The authorities obviously have a duty to protect national interests but the current fear of spies in Georgia must not be allowed to fuel a climate of intimidation in the media, and security imperatives must not override democratic principles,” the media watchdog group said. “We urge the counter-espionage and judicial services to conduct a calm and impartial investigation that respects legal procedures and the rights of the defendants.”
Meanwhile in Tbilisi, a group of journalist gathered outside the police building where the arrested photographers are held to call on the authorities to declassify the case and provide detailed information.
Tbilisi-based legal advocacy group, Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, which provides legal defense for arrested Irakli Gedenidze, a personal photographer of President Saakashvili and to his wife, Natia, also a photographer, called on law enforcement agencies to make the case public and to put “convincing arguments” behind a decision to classify the case as secret.
Pavle Kublashvili, a senior ruling party lawmakers, who chairs parliamentary committee for legal affairs, said on July 8, that at this stage it was impossible to provide details of the case because it was classified.
“I think, that at the next stage, both the Interior Ministry and the prosecutor’s office will satisfy society’s interest towards this case. If possible the information will be provided in full and in a timely manner,” MP Kublashvili said.
Four arrested photographers remain in detention, but no charges have yet been formally brought against them. Deadline for formally charging them will expire on Saturday – 48 hours after they were detained.
Ramaz Chinchaladze, a lawyer of one of the arrested photographers, Giorgi Abdaladze, told journalists on July 8, that he was not aware when exactly the deadline for putting formal charges would expire, because although his client was taken by the police in custody at about 2:30am local time on July 7, he was not yet able to see an actual protocol of arrest so he did not know when exactly arrest was formally registered.
“I do not know why initiating formal charges is dragged out,” the lawyer said. “If charges are brought it will probably be under the article 314 of criminal code, which is espionage.”
After charges are formally brought against an accused, court has to consider whether to release a detainee on bail or to send to pre-trial detention. The process should take place no later than 72 hours after the arrest, according to the law.
The fourth photographer, arrested on July 7, is Zurab Kurtsikidze, who works for the European Pressphoto Agency (epa).
Manana Manjgaladze, the Georgian President’s spokesperson said in a written statement on July 7, that Charges against four photojournalists involve passing of sensitive information, including schedule of unspecified confidential events to an organization identified as a spying network.
“This case is about a serious leakage of information from our institutions, not about journalism or media activities,” she said. “The people arrested were not at all known for expressing any political view and it is outrageous to connect their arrest in any way with the question of freedom of media.”