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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Scandal Erupts Over Georgian TV Raid

ReutersA woman shouting at a state security police officer outside the Rustavi-2 television company's building in Tbilisi on Tuesday.
TBILISI, Georgia — State security police raided the offices of Georgia's main private television news station late Tuesday, sparking an angry outcry from company staff and liberal parliamentary deputies and prompting the resignation of a top Georgian security official.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze ordered an inquiry into the raid and pledged to uphold press freedom in the former Soviet state.

Shevardnadze accepted Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze's resignation as the "right" decision during a security council meeting Wednesday, but criticized staff at Rustavi-2 television station for defying a court order to open their financial records for examination.

"There is no threat for the freedom of speech in Georgia," said Shevardnadze. "It is inviolable."

But he said that he supported Kutateladze's resignation because "there is still an impression that the methods used by the Security Ministry were not very well thought of."

Thirty security agents showed up Tuesday near the office of Rustavi-2 for a search, acting on a warrant saying the company evaded taxes. But they were denied entry by the company director and retreated — captured on film in live television broadcasts — to the jeers of a crowd of some 500 Rustavi supporters.

Television officials accused the agents of trying to seize the critical media organization, and both staff and liberal legislators denounced the raid as an attack on freedom of the press.

Shevardnadze repeated assurances made earlier in the day that he had ordered an investigation into the raid and promised "an appropriate decision" if police were found to be acting illegally.

Parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania was among the most vocal critics of the raid, denouncing it on Rustavi-2 as "a clear act of political score-settling and political persecution."

He said official campaigns against corruption had been turned into "a struggle against a civil society and a struggle against free speech and generally freedom in our country."

A statement from the Security Ministry on Tuesday said: "What happened at Rustavi-2 today has no political background and is linked to the economic side of the TV company's activities."

But Rustavi-2's management said a recent inspection of the company's financial affairs had revealed no irregularities and accused the government of exerting open political pressure.

"What has happened is being done on the political orders of those in power," said Erosi Kintsmarishvili, a co-founder of Rustavi-2.

The station, founded in 1994, is widely respected in Georgia and is known for criticizing corruption and other abuses by state authorities. It has criticized Shevardnadze on a variety of issues, from his management of the economy to the conflict around separatist Abkhazia and the possible presence of Chechen rebels in Georgia.

Liberal deputies drew comparisons with raids of media organizations earlier this year in neighboring Russia, when investigators repeatedly entered the offices of NTV television as part of an inquiry into the finances of founder Vladimir Gusinsky.

(Reuters, AP)