Rustavi 2 TV aired late on Saturday night portions from what it said were secretly recorded phone conversations of current and former high-ranking officials, lawmakers and businessmen, which the TV channel said prove that illegal wiretapping is taking place under the current authorities as well.
Rustavi 2 TV’s new biweekly program, Different Accents, whose first installment on May 10 was dedicated to long-standing concerns over government’s illegal surveillance practices, aired audio recordings of phone conversations, which, as host of the program Eka Kvesitadze said, were provided by “anonymous source.”
According to this TV program, audio recordings, which were made in 2013, feature phone conversations between parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili and then secretary of National Security Council Giga Bokeria; Defense Minister Irakli Alasania and Bokeria; Usupashvili and then Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava; a senior Georgian Dream (GD) lawmaker Davit Saganelidze and businessmen Roman Pipia; GD MP Gela Samkharauli and businessman Mamia Sanadiradze, as well as Shalva Obgaidze, a member of Nino Burjanadze’s party and a person identified by the TV program as a businessman Beso Gabunia.
In a recording of phone conversation purportedly between Usupashvili and Ugulava the two men are discussing some budgetary issues of the capital city and judging from the content of conversation it was apparently recorded sometime between July and October, 2013. In a recording of phone conversation purportedly between Alasania and Bokeria the two are discussing then president Mikheil Saakashvili’s scheduled visit to Afghanistan (although TV program gave the date of this conversation as 2013, content of conversation indicates that it was possibly recorded in late December, 2012).
Airing of these recordings came amid Rustavi 2 TV’s claims that offices of its top executives were bugged by the current authorities.
Rustavi 2 TV said on May 6 that a source from the Interior Ministry leaked to the television station June, 2013 video recordings showing offices of TV channel’s chief executive Nika Gvaramia and his deputy. Rustavi 2 TV blames the authorities for installing surveillance devices in the offices of its top executives.
But prosecutor’s office suggested on May 9 that offices were possibly bugged in December, 2012 by a security agency, which at the time was under then president Saakashvili’s subordination.
At a news conference on May 9 during which Gvaramia was leveling counter-allegations over the bugging case, Gvaramia also said that the channel has more recordings exposing current authorities’ practice of eavesdropping of even “senior officials.” It was then followed by a promo of Rustavi 2 TV’s new program, which was telling viewers that it possesses wiretapped recordings of politicians and businessmen.
On Saturday evening, few hours before Rustavi 2 TV aired recordings, prosecutor’s office released a statement warning the TV channel that “illegal use and dissemination” of private phone conversations is a crime.
Prosecutor’s office said in its statement that in 2010-2011 the Interior Ministry purchased eavesdropping devices, but large part of those devices have been “lost” and there is “a high probability” that those devices are now under possession of persons, who are affiliated with the former government members.
Referring to Nika Gvaramia’s May 9 remarks that Rustavi 2 TV was planning to air recordings of current high-ranking officials, prosecutor’s office also said in its statement: “The unlawful use of private conversations, including those obtained through technical means, and their subsequent distribution, including through media sources, constitutes to a criminal act under the criminal code.”
Although there is such provision in the criminal code, banning dissemination of illegally obtained recordings of private conversations, Georgia’s Law on Freedom of Speech and Expression provides for strong protection of journalists and their sources in such cases. This law envisages liability only to persons who are legally obliged under their official duties to keep a secret and when the disclosure “creates a direct and substantial danger to values protected by law”. According to this law a person shall not be held responsible if the purpose of disclosure of a secret is “protection of lawful interests of the public” and when interest of such disclosure is greater than possible harm.
Rustavi 2 TV said that airing of those recordings – only small portions of those wiretapped conversations were aired – aimed only at exposing illegal surveillance practice.
The airing of these recordings also comes amid an ongoing campaign by a large group of human rights, legal advocacy, watchdog and civil society organizations, aimed at pushing for legislative amendments to limit government’s surveillance capabilities. The campaign, called This Affects You, was launched in early March under the slogan “We Are Still Eavesdropped”.
Earlier this month PM Irakli Garibashvili lambasted this campaign group and said it “damages” Georgia’s international reputation and “undermines” country’s security.
The bill, which this campaign group is lobbying, has been under consideration for more than ten months already. Although it is supported by some GD lawmakers as well, including by MP Shalva Shavgulidze, who led the process of drafting this bill, the proposed legislative amendments are opposed by the Interior Ministry.
The dispute comes down to one key issue – the government, in particular the Interior Ministry, wants to remove from the bill a provision, which would significantly restrict or possibly even end its capability to have a direct access to telecommunication companies’ server infrastructure.
The Interior Ministry argues that after receiving court warrant to carry out surveillance, it should not be required to also notify communications operators as it will increase risk of leaking confidential information and undermine operative activities of the law enforcement agencies.
Secret surveillance, privacy rights and personal data protection have been a source of concern in Georgia for years already, but the issue became subject of intense discussions with an active government engagement last year and the authorities have pledged to establish strong mechanisms both on legislative and executive level to prevent illegal surveillance.
But despite this pledge concerns still remain as law enforcement agencies maintain so called 'black box' devices in the server infrastructure of major telecommunication companies, giving security agencies direct access for simultaneous monitoring of thousands of mobile phone numbers.