WASHINGTON — Nearly one year into a 3½-year prison term, Georgian journalist Nika Gvaramia says he’s doing OK.
“I’m good. I met all this very prepared,” he told VOA from a prison in Rustavi, Georgia, through written messages shared with VOA via his lawyer. “I knew it was going to happen and I knew I would have to endure it.”
Gvaramia is a former member of the Georgian parliament and founder of the pro-opposition broadcaster Mtavari Arkhi. Last May, a court convicted him of abuse of power related to his work in 2019 as the director for a separate broadcaster, Rustavi 2.
Gvaramia denies the charges and is appealing his case at the Supreme Court. His colleagues and press freedom advocates believe the conviction is retaliatory.
The case “is purely political,” said Tamar Kintsurashvili, executive director of the Tbilisi-based Media Development Foundation. “There’s no legal grounds for his detention. He was critical of the current government.”
“It actually reflects recent developments in this country,” she said. “Nika’s detention is just an illustration of their goals.”
Gvaramia is the only journalist jailed in Georgia over his work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the first jailed in Georgia over his work since at least 1992, when the press freedom group started keeping track.
EU diplomats and others see his case as a red flag for press freedom. Some have said that Gvaramia’s trial was linked to apparent efforts to undermine the country’s candidacy for European Union membership.
Gvaramia’s lawyer, Tamta Muradashvili, believes that his case is “directly linked to Georgia’s European future.” The fates of Gvaramia and his country are intertwined, she said.
His colleague at Mtavari Arkhi, Eka Kvesitadze, went further, saying that the arrest “was a clear sabotage, and it was done to hinder this process with the EU, and it was done deliberately.”
A September 2022 poll from the National Democratic Institute found that 75% of Georgians support EU membership, with the government’s lack of political will listed as the main barrier.
Georgia was expected to receive EU candidacy status last June, alongside Ukraine and Moldova.
Ukraine and Moldova were granted candidate status. But Georgia was denied, with the EU listing 12 reforms — including on press freedom — needed before the country can be granted candidacy status.
Georgia was once lauded as among the freest former Soviet countries. But in recent years, concerns have deepened over whether the country is moving away from the West amid corruption issues, democratic backsliding, and the apparent influence of billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who founded the ruling Georgian Dream political party in 2012. Critics say he still exercises significant influence despite no longer holding a formal position.
Still, others say that Georgian Dream may be trying to walk a fine line with Russia since the invasion of Ukraine out of fear of angering its neighbor.
The Georgian Embassy in Washington told VOA that the country is committed to EU integration.
“Georgia is closer than ever to its goal of becoming a full-fledged member of the EU,” the embassy said, adding that claims that Gvaramia was jailed to block the country’s EU candidacy “is based on absolutely false information.”
“Georgia has a free, independent, and pluralistic media environment,” the embassy email read.
This year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Georgia 77 out of 180 countries in the world, where 1 shows the best media environment. In 2022, Georgia ranked 89.
On May 16, 2022, the day that Gvaramia was sent to prison, the journalist sent his children to school like normal. It was windy and drizzling in Tbilisi.
“They left to school, and we went to the courtroom,” his wife, Sofia Liluashvili, told VOA.
After the decision was announced, “the only thing he asked me was not to cry,” Liluashvili said. The tears flowed after she left the building.
“As Nika’s partner, as his friend, and as a person who shares Nika’s values, I’m trying to do all I can for Nika — of course personally, but for my country,” Liluashvili said. “Georgia’s future is at stake.”
Gvaramia’s jailing has also taken a toll on the broadcaster Mtavari Arkhi, especially financially. “Nika’s channel is in constant survival mode,” Liluashvili said.
Kvesitadze, a presenter at Mtavari Arkhi, has worked with Gvaramia since 2013.
“I have been missing him so much,” she told VOA. “We’re the two hosts for prime time, and I’m the only one now. And it’s a horrible, horrible feeling, and still it’s so hard to operate without him.”
Gvaramia, too, is well aware of the challenges for his channel.
“It is not a question of optimism. It is a question of struggle and dedicated work. My fantastic team proves every day that they can do it, and every day they win against the system,” he said. “Georgian media is the most outstanding fighter in this country.”
Among the EU’s recommendations for Georgia is that it should “undertake stronger efforts to guarantee a free, professional, pluralistic and independent media environment, notably by ensuring that criminal procedures brought against media owners fulfil the highest legal standards.”
Releasing Gvaramia is a clear step to achieving that, advocates said.
“We called on the Georgian president [Salome Zourabichvili] to release Gvaramia and hope that she will do that soon,” said Gulnoza Said, who covers violations in Georgia at the CPJ. “Otherwise, the stain on Georgia’s reputation will remain unwashed.”
Georgia has until the end of the year to implement the EU’s recommendations.
But some analysts told VOA they believe failed attempts this year to pass a foreign agent law is another sign that the government is trying to move away from Western values.
The proposed bill required all nonprofits and media groups to register as foreign agents if they received more than 20% of funding from abroad. Met with widespread protests, the bill was withdrawn.
The foreign agent law was another attempt by the government to establish control over the media, according to CPJ’s Said, adding, “It was unsuccessful. For now.”
From cell 212, Gvaramia is waiting for updates or any information on his appeal at the Supreme Court, which has until June to issue its decision.
Until then, he has established a routine: He watches TV in the morning and spends much of the rest of the day reading, adding, “I have a lot of books in my cell.”
“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end with the discipline to confront your current reality, whatever it might be,” Gvaramia said. “You must retain your fortitude and freedom, but you must also be able to find tranquility. This is the most important thing, and I was able to do it.”
Source : VOA News