Taking deep drags on a cigarette, Nika Gvaramia walked from desk to desk around the newsroom full of his faithful team members, TV anchors, producers and reporters. It was past 1 a.m., one more sleepless night that the Rustavi-2 TV crew was spending within the walls of their barricaded television station, defending their independent channel from state intruders.
The newsroom was their home. Meanwhile, over the past weeks, an intense ownership conflict has unfolded: court hearings, intrigues, and threats. Throughout all this, the television team had grown as close as brothers and sisters.
Today’s Georgia is a country where freedom of speech is needed like air. In the past three years or so, unemployment has increased up to over 17 percent; homeless children beg for money; homeless women sleep on cold nights right on Rustaveli, the central avenue of the capital Tbilisi. Dozens of Georgian Muslims, adults and teenagers, are leaving to join insurgencies in Syria, including at least four Georgian citizens serving in the command of ISIS. Citizens are losing their hopes for the ruling Georgian Dream party and its leader, the billionaire and richest man in the country, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Apparently, the vox pop that Rustavi-2 aired from different regions earlier this autumn became one of the irritating factors causing the conflict: in the videos, the country’s ordinary people cursed Ivanishvili, confessing that their “dreams and hopes for the Georgian Dream party were ruined.”
But nothing showed the Georgian authorities in a worse light than the blackmail and threats against their opponents’ families—including against the TV station director, Gvaramia himself.
To combat the government’s blackmail attempts, Gvaramia did not keep his secrets from his team members at Rustavi-2. Everybody in the newsroom was aware of his losses: in the “war” against the TV channel, authorities had managed to ruin Gvaramia’s personal life. An effort to discredit the head of the TV station, famous for its harsh criticism of authorities, secret services had taped Gvamaria’s phone conversations, took videos of his intimate love scenes, and blackmailed him, threatening the security of his family, his wife, and his two little children.
But for Gvaramia, it wasn’t just his own life at stake. “My life means nothing; it is freedom of speech in my country that the ruler Ivanishvili is after; and that is what we cannot afford losing in this war,” Gvaramia told The Daily Beast on Thursday night.
The attacks on Gvaramia sounded familiar, as if their author had taken a page from an old Soviet textbook on how to break a person. On Oct. 21, the newly established Georgian State Security Service questioned Gvaramia in Tbilisi. The first interrogation lasted for eight hours and the second, for five hours. The matter at the heart of the questioning was a taped phone conversation between the Rustavi-2 director and Georgia’s former president, the current political exile and Russia’s bête noire, Mikhail Saakashvili.
Apparently, the interrogators were not satisfied. Gvaramia was tougher than authorities expected—after all, he was not just an ordinary manager but Georgia’s former minister of justice, as well as its former prosecutor general and its minister of education at the time that Georgia designed its package of legislative reforms. The current minister of justice, Tea Tsulukiani, did not condemn the idea of covertly taping Gvaramia. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Tsulukani insisted that Saakashvili “was calling for bloodshed” in the taped phone conversation. The minister considered Gvaramia “too emotional,” and manipulated by Saakashvili from abroad.
It was an Ukrianian website that released the taped phone conversations. Saakashvili, now governor of the Odessa region in Ukraine, called Gvaramia to encourage Rustavi-2 to build barricades around the building and prepare for the worst. Saakashvili said he’d been keeping an eye on Georgia and dreamed to sort out both countries. “You have to go for the revolution here, call on the people for defense. You have to fortify, build barricades, right, exactly, barricades. Just seal yourselves off. Stockpile water and stuff and go for a weeks-long standoff,” Saakshvili told Gvaramia, in his typically eccentric manner.
Was he being manipulated by Saakashvili, The Daily Beast asked Gvaramia from inside his besieged office. Gvaramia just waved at the street, where dozens of men and women were guarding the entrance to Rustavi-2 day and night; sometimes a vehicle drove by with U.S. diplomatic plates. The barricade was not his idea but the will of the channel’s supporters, he insisted. The price he paid for fighting the war with the government was high; “my personal life is ruined” as a result of the standoff, he said.
To dismiss Gvamaria from his director’s position at Rustavi-2, a Georgian court appointed two temporary managers to run Georgia’s largest private broadcaster, or essentially to censor it.
The following day after the interrogations, authorities sent Gvaramia a messenger with a list of blackmail options. “A man I knew well showed up at this office a few days ago, telling me to give up the fight for Rustavi-2,” Gvaramia recalled with a bitter smile. “He reminded me that my family were still in Georgia and not in the United States; that if I resist cooperating, authorities would publish my phone conversations with Saakashvili and some compromising video they allegedly have of me in an intimate scene at some apartment.”
The threats were “disgusting and painful,” the channel’s director admitted. In response, Gvamaria immediately went on air and told the entire country about what had happened.
“We were so proud he did not bend, he did not break, but fought authorities wall to wall,” a Rustavi-2 producer, Sopho Bukia, told The Daily Beast. (But back at home, Gvaramia said, his wife was suffering after his confessions.)
Who taped the phone conversations and took videos of Rustavi-2 director? Gvamaria supposed it could be the Ukrainian secret service, SBU, or even the Russian secret service, the FSB. “If our security service is using KGB methods, that is a terrible news for Georgia,” the director told The Daily Beast.
“Taping, blackmailing, threatening the family—this is a disaster, indeed, something typical for authoritarian regimes,” Irakly Alasania, former defense minister and supporter of the Georgian Dream party, and now the most popular politician in Georgia, told The Daily Beast on Friday.
Looking for a new solid leader, Georgians often named Alasania as somebody who could make a difference in the parliamentary elections next year. “My own dream is ruined by the current government, so I will do everything to change things in Georgia, to guarantee freedom … so people’s lives would not be used for political ambitions,” Alasania said in an interview with The Daily Beast.
On the legal ground Rustavi-2 and Gvamaria won the war: On Friday, the constitutional court ruled to cancel the state’s appointment of the temporary managers, officially giving Gvamaria his job back. But his personal life and security were still damaged: Gvamaria has said he’s decided to move his family away from Georgia to the United States.