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Profile of RFE/RL's Georgian service in 'The Prague Post'

Broadcasting the Truth From Afar

Long nights and heavy emotions for Georgian journalists

By Benjamin Thomas Cunningham
Staff Writer, The Prague Post
August 20th, 2008

Major violence in Georgia had ceased, but on the morning of our visit to the Georgian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty there was still much news to cover with Russia occupying the strategic central Georgian city of Gori, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev vowing to continue support for the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice en route to Tbilisi.

If the previous week was any guide, who could guess what would come next?

Fresh off another in a mounting series of 16-hour workdays, David Kakabadze, director of the Georgian Service, was prepping for four hours of live broadcasts into Georgia that evening. The chaotic pile of papers on his desk signified what kind of week it had been. He was beginning work on an Internet-based voiceover and video piece for Al-Jazeera and there were rumors of a potential interview with Rice during her stopover in Paris.

“The main picture is this: Georgia is being punished for its Western aspirations, for not wanting to remain under Russian influence,” he said. “What I am surprised about is how far Russia was willing to go.”

Down the hall, Okropir Rukhadze, a broadcaster with the service, was watching the latest news roll in on Georgian television and basking in the glory of what has been the only recent good news for his native country — two Olympic gold medals the day before in men’s judo and Greco-Roman wrestling.

“Bombs, Russians, tanks,” he said. “Two gold medals.”

Kakabadze — himself a former sports reporter during the Soviet-era — also looked on, adding, “Sports are something very important, even in times of war.”

The rest of the five-person Georgian team based in Prague was trickling in after another late night on the job, the 15-person bureau based in Tbilisi no doubt frantically catching up with events on the ground.

The path
Deputy Director Bidzina Ramischwili, who defected to West Germany in 1988 as a Greek and Latin literature scholar on an exchange program, arrived at the office and took a moment to recall the path he traveled to the present. “I used the chance and I did not come back,” he said. “In our family, Germany was sort of a dreamland. It was the most dramatic moment of my life when I put my foot on German soil.”

Ramischwili was not alone among this crew of Georgian journalists. In fact, four — with varying degrees of international intrigue mixed in — used German academia as a springboard to the West.

Rukhadze, who describes himself as “an anti-Bolshevik,” has a mixed history of work and study in Germany and scored a job at RFE/RL after meeting up with old friends at a Georgia-Germany European Championships football qualifier.

Manana Kuzma, another broadcaster, studied German language and literature in the former East Germany, later beginning work when RFE/RL was based in Munich. “Radio Liberty was something very special for us,” she said. “It was a legend, you could say.”

Kakabadze, too, made his way to Europe via Germany. On April 9, 1989 — the anniversary of the event is still commemorated with a national holiday each year — Soviet troops broke up demonstrations in Georgia, resulting in hundreds of injuries and an estimated 20 deaths, and leading Kakabadze to quit work at a Russian sports newspaper.
“This was the beginning of the end. It was definitely a kind of trigger for me. I could not work for a Russian newspaper,” he said.

Seeking other avenues, he eventually secured a spot in Cologne to begin studying for a Ph.D. When civil war erupted in Georgia in 1991, Kakabadze moved the rest of his family to join him with the help of a German professor. A few years later, “in a lucky coincidence,” he began work with RFE/RL.

The team’s fifth and youngest member, Salome Asatiani, is a former rock DJ. Though lacking a German connection, she has an academic résumé including stops in the United Kingdom and Budapest. As an RFE/RL freelancer in Tbilisi, she used to cover minority issues. “Not just ethnic minorities, or women, but anybody who was doing something different,” she said.

On the home front
While the team is now based in Prague — as one of 21 native language RFE/RL services broadcasting into Eastern Europe, Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East from the station headquarters on Vinohradská — all also pay regular visits to their native country, some as recently as June. Family members now experiencing conflict firsthand made geographically distant news hit close to home both literally and figuratively.

Rukhadze had last spoken with his 81-year-old mother two days before our visit. “She said to me, ‘There’s nothing special. At around 4 o’clock, it was pretty loud.’ ” Rukhadze added, “She was around for World War II.”

Not all the thoughts on the current happenings carried such a light-hearted tone. All the RFE/RL team hails from Tbilisi, which was spared the harshest of the fighting, but war’s uncertainties made this little comfort. The day after our visit to the RFE/RL headquarters, Manana Kuzma took much-deserved time off for her son’s birthday.

Thinking of her parents and brothers in Georgia, she said, “Even today I am trying to work. If you have a task, you can keep busy, you don’t think about it as much,” she said. On the tensest days of the crisis, the occasional dead phone lines were cause for concern, but as of the time of our visit all was well for the families — “well” being a relative term.

The swift advent of war has proved shocking to nearly all Georgians.

“Confused, scared and angry. Everybody is like that,” said Salome Asatiani, speaking perhaps equally of her family in Georgia and herself.

For most outsiders, questions remain as to what triggered the recent fighting, and the staff of the Georgian Service was no different. The RFE/RL team shied away from making simple cause-and-effect arguments about the violence of recent days, with most pointing to blends of history, geo-politics and personalities.

“We all know what Putin is,” Kakabadze said.

Feelings about Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a favorite of Western leaders with an eye on bringing his country into NATO, were not so straightforward. A recurring phrase when speaking the president’s name was “He has made some mistakes.”

A government media crackdown in November 2007 and a state of emergency meant to quiet opposition protests served as proof that the RFE/RL work broadcasting unbiased news into the country remained important — even in more certain times, if only slightly more certain.

“We are quite critical in our coverage of Saakashvili,” Kakabadze said. “I don’t think he likes us very much.” Rukhadze voiced similar sentiments on the president. “He is not my friend,” he said, before adding, “But now nobody in Georgia is speaking about his mistakes.”

Saakashvili has received praise for modernizing Georgia since the historic Rose Revolution of 2003, and Kakabadze said, “He has a lot of the features of an autocrat, but I can forgive some of his mistakes because I can say he has honestly made his country better.”

In recent days, however, few would argue that conditions in Georgia were better, and once the smoke clears the country is likely to have many new problems to deal with.

Dealing with long office hours on limited sleep and very much within that metaphorical fog of war, journalists at the Georgian Service see these events as a setback, but rightly have trouble predicting what comes next.

“Georgia has a chance, but today’s evidence is proof that a chance is not enough,” said Ramischwili, the deputy director.

In truth, what was to come next was easy to predict: another 16 hour workday.


The Prague Post is a weekly newspaper published in the Czech Republic.
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