The International Press Institute (IPI) today expressed concern over the arrest of three photojournalists by the Georgian authorities. Irakli Gedenidze, the personal photographer for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Foreign Ministry photographer Giorgi Abdaladze, and European Pressphoto Agency (EPA) employee Zurab Kurtsikidze were detained on 7 July and accused of spying for Russia, EPA Editor-in-Chief Cengiz Seren told IPI.
Gedenidze, whose wife was also briefly detained, said he provided information to Kurtsikidze because the latter had threatened to blackmail him, according to the New York Times. “In the confession, Gedenidze said he cooperated with Kurtsikidze out of fear,” the publication read.
The journalist’s wife was reportedly released without charge.
The three photographers were accused of allegedly passing on confidential information to Russian intelligence, thus acting against the interests of Georgia. At this point, however, the evidence remains incomplete and ambiguous.
“The evidence has changed form and nature”, Seren said. “We are very worried that the allegations do not become any clearer as the days advance.”
At first, the arrests were linked to six photos that Kurtsikidze provided from an anti-government demonstration that took place on 26 May – two of them taken by a stringer, and the remaining four by Kurtsikidze himself, Seren explained. The three now-arrested photographers were accused of delivering them to the Russian secret services.
“The pictures were taken for an assignment, and were moved to the EPA database, thus made public,” Seren made clear. “They were not delivered to any secret service.”
Seren explained that the Georgian authorities then moved on to a new version of the case, saying that Kurtsikidze and his colleagues were not arrested as a result of their journalistic work, but because they were in possession of confidential documents. For a short period of time, the suspicion of EPA’s involvement in espionage for Russia was toned down until the following day when the Georgian authorities accused the agency of supposedly having ties with the Russian intelligence services, according to the editor.
“Our position is very simple: EPA does not have any links with any intelligence agency and Zurab Kurtsikidze’s job with EPA since 2003 first as a stringer then later as a staff member was always in respect of the laws of the Republic of Georgia,” Seren said in a written statement.
Russia and Georgia, a former Soviet state, fought a brief war in 2008, and since then the two countries have been experiencing tense diplomatic relations.
IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills said: “We are concerned at the ambiguous circumstances surrounding the arrest of the three photographers. Either the Georgian government should lay out the alleged evidence clearly, systematically and transparently, or the photographers should be released immediately. We are particularly concerned at the suggestion that the arrests may have something to do with the work of the journalists. Furthermore, the allegation that the EPA has ties to Russian intelligence is not one that should be made lightly – or without any evidence.”