When Georgia's Fighting “Terrorists,” How Much Does the Public Need to Know?
Two days after a nearly 24-hour-long, armed counter-terrorism operation in Tbilisi that killed four people, the Georgian public still doesn’t know whom its special forces were fighting or why. Even while congratulating itself for a mission accomplished, the government has refused to release any details. The media finds itself under fire for trying to make sense of the whole thing.
Georgian television channels carried live the ferocious, November 21-22 gunfight in the Georgian capital’s bedroom community of Isani. They provided updates on the SWAT-style movements, although Georgia’s largest TV station, Rustavi2, specified that it delayed its own broadcast of these movements by an hour. Residents evacuated from the area were also interviewed.
Journalists now face criticism from government officials, media observers and ordinary social-media users for potentially tipping off the alleged four gunmen holed up in the sieged apartment building. One popular meme depicts heavily armed fighters watching a TV reporter’s live coverage and saying “I wish he can show us what’s happening behind the doors.”
As the standoff continued on Wednesday, a media-watchdog, the Journalism Ethics Charter, released a statement advising that “Journalists have a responsibility not to provide details of anti-terror or defense actions as it may lead . . . to the failure of the actions.”
In response, several journalists defended their coverage, saying it was the police’s responsibility to seal off the area and prevent the leakage of any potentially harmful details. “Journalists are like air; they go wherever they can,” Tengiz Gogotishvili, a prominent Rustavi2 reporter, said on Facebook.
At the same time, media attempts to press the government for answers about the gunfight continue to result in pro-government politicians and officials shushing journalists with exhortations about the need to act responsibly during a security crisis. “Until the investigation is underway, we need to avoid making [uncorroborated] statements and the media have their share of responsibility in this,” said Sopo Kiladze, a lawmaker from the ruling Georgian Dream.
Officials would not comment much beyond saying that the nation came face-to-face with international terrorism and claiming that the crisis was handled well.
While discounting the need to know their citizenship, the interior ministry said the identities of the gunmen – three were killed during the shootout – and their affiliation are being ascertained and will be revealed after the investigation.
One unnamed individual, a purported Russian citizen, was arrested during the operation and faces charges of being a member of a foreign terror group, aiding terrorist activity and possession of firearms and explosives. He has pled not guilty.
Demanding answers, critics charge that authorities must have known whom they were up against since the special forces initiated the raid. Local residents said that special-police vehicles had maintained a vigil in the area for some time.
One special-forces officer has died from his wounds in the initial attack and several other officers suffered injuries.
While the Georgian government dodges questions about what happened, speculation is filling the information void. National media outlets are repeating an unsourced brief in Turkey’s Habertürk daily that Ahmed Chatayev, the suspected mastermind of the 2016 attack on Atatϋrk Airport and a former Georgia resident, is among the gunmen killed in the Isani operation.
“If this is corroborated, then the government has some serious questions to answer,” fumed Zaza Bibilashvili, a leader of the opposition National Movement Party, in comments to Rustavi2. “In particular, how did a man with one arm and one hand and who is on an international terrorist list enter Georgian territory?”
Asked to comment on November 23, Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia characterized the claim as “versions and interpretations” about the counter-terrorist operation.
“Today’s the time for peaceful, calm investigative work,” he said. “No one has the right to make interpretations today.”