Journalistic Ethics Charter Council of Georgia, a self-regulatory body for about couple of hundred journalists united under the ethics charter, plans to hold a rally outside the Interior Ministry on Monday to call for declassifying the case of arrested photojournalists.
“In connection to the photojournalists’ case, the Council will demand a meeting with Interior Minister [Vano Merabishvili] and an immediate declassification of the case,” the group said in a statement, calling on journalists, media organizations and civil society representatives to participate in the rally.
Nino Zuriashvili, an investigative reporter and a member of the press council, said that release by the Interior Ministry of some details of the case against photographers on July 9 further fueled doubts about credibility of the charges brought against the photographers. She told Tbilisi-based Maestro TV, that the case should be declassified as “society’s interest towards it is huge.”
The case of arrested photographers, who have been charged with espionage, has been classified as secret; the trial into the case, which is expected to be launched in September, will be held behind the closed doors. A lawyer for one of the arrested photographers has said that the case really contained state secret materials.
The Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) said on July 9, that one of the arrested photographers, Zurab Kurtsikidze, who was working for the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA), had links with the Russian military intelligence and two others, including President Saakashvili’s personal photographer, were providing him with confidential information, including, among others, photos of technical drawings of the presidential palace and travel routes of Saakashvili.
The Interior Ministry released President Saakashvili’s personal photographer Irakli Gedenidze’s recorded statement to the police, saying that he was “blackmailed” by Kurtsikidze and agreed to provide him not only pool photos of various events, but also some confidential information he was allegedly requesting from Gedenidze. The latter, like two others – Kurtsikidze and Giorgi Abdaladze – were sent to a pre-trial detention; Gedenidze’s wife, Natia Gedenidze, who was also arrested, was released in early hours of July 9. The court said later on the same day that she was released on GEL 10,000 bail because she had “confessed her crime” and because of having two children.
The Interior Ministry also released secretly recorded brief phone conversations in which Kurtsikidze is asking Gedenidze and Abdaladze to send via email their bank account details to transfer them money.
Editor-in-chief of Frankfurt-based EPA, Cengiz Seren, told The Associated Press on July 9, that as part of his work Kurtsikidze “would have had programs of the president's visit and things like that”.
Seren also said that Kurtsikidze was asking his fellow photographers for their banking details so that the agency could wire them money for the photos they took for EPA. Seren said EPA's accountants were going to find all the documents related to any money that was transferred to Kurtsikidze and to other photographers through him and to submit those documents to the Georgian authorities.
In separate comments to Agence France-Presse (AFP)Seren said that he believed the authorities had misinterpreted innocent conversations about payments for photographs.
“They decided this could be a spy ring but of course it is far, far away from that,” he said, adding that the allegations were “very easily provable false” and that he would send evidence from the agency to the Georgian authorities next week.
The Paris-based media watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders, said on July 8 that “utmost transparency is needed to dispel suspicions that these arrests were politically motivated.”
“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,” Reporters Without Borders said.
Manana Manjgaladze, the Georgian President’s spokesperson said in a written statement on July 7, that the case was about “a serious leakage of information from our institutions, not about journalism or media activities.”
“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,” she said on July 7.