Georgian State Security Service questioning politicians, journalists about Facebook coronavirus posts
The comments were mostly related to TV channel Mtavari Arkhi’s coverage of the epidemic in Marneuli, and dedicated a programme to a discussion with two residents of the town that is largely inhabited by ethnic Azerbaijanis.
Marneuli was earlier one of the hotspots of the coronavirus epidemic in Georgia, and was quarantined for some time by the military.
In Mtavari Arkhi’s June 20 programme, Arkinaz Guliyeva and Zarina Talibova said that the authorities had offered their families 10,000 lari (about $3,000) if they were to agree to register the cause of death of their family members as the coronavirus, although in reality they died from other diseases.
The topic raised the question, why did the authorities need to artificially inflate the statistics of deaths from the coronavirus?
After the transfer, Guliyeva and Talibova began to have problems with the State Security Service, where they were called in to give explanations.
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The statement of the State Security Service of Georgia says that Mtavari Arkhi’s broadcast is based on misinformation, because of which a case has been opened under article 318 of the Criminal Code, ‘sabotage’, and which is punishable by 2 to 4 years in prison.
The statement emphasizes that Guliyeva and Talibova answered questions in their native Azerbaijani language, and claims the translation into Georgian was purposefully made to not correspond with what they were saying.
The State Security Service believes that the goal of Mtavari Arkhi is to discredit the authorities in anticipation of the parliamentary elections on October 31 this year.
However, the SSS drew attention not only to this programme, but also to the reaction of the audience on Facebook.
Thus, one of the leaders of the Republican Party, Khatuna Samnidze, came into the attention of the State Security Service, who wrote in a comment on a post that she had heard similar stories when the families in which someone died were offered an amount to ensure that the cause of death was indicated as coronavirus.
The politician says that she was summoned to the State Security Service for questioning and threatened with being charged with the criminal article for sabotage. According to her, journalist Nino Chelidze was also summoned for interrogation, who also had written a comment with similar content.
The Georgian authorities were recently caught in a scandal when Facebook deleted hundreds of fake accounts that belonged to the ruling party; now, it seems they are trying to take up a fight against ‘fake news’ themselves.
In any case, the mayor of Tbilisi Kakha Kaladze, who is also the secretary general of the ruling Georgian Dream party, stated precisely such a goal.
On June 25, he launched the Fist of Truth project on Facebook, which intends to make sure media outlets do not ‘deliberately spread disinformation.’
Judging by the logo of the first programme, which Kaladze broadcast live on Facebook, three opposition television companies, Mtavari Arkhi, TV Pirveli and Formula, are being targeted. The audience of the debut programme, which lasted about 25 minutes, was about 3,500 people.
The public reaction to the actions of the authorities is mixed. Many recall the recent revelatory campaign conducted by the Facebook administration.
A letter from the head of Facebook’s cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleyer, states that 418 fake pages, 13 fake groups and 22 fake instagrams were destroyed as a result of the cleanup. In a considerable part of them, the Georgian authorities were directly or indirectly involved.
Georgian experts and politicians consider the actions of the Georgian authorities, in particular, the State Security Service, as a coordinated attack on the media before the parliamentary elections. In their opinion, such activities pose a threat to the freedom of speech, and such a reaction against Mtavari Arkhi and its associates is unacceptable, even if the journalistic work was performed with errors and flaws.
Opposition politicians and non-governmental organizations are sounding the alarm, believing that the first steps are being taken to restore censorship.