Cannes/ Tiblisi, July 15 2021
by Mark Porter
Anti-gay violence, already a feature of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, is spreading into formerly Soviet Georgia, with brutal police suppression of press reporting of gay demonstrations. Four Georgian TV stations suspended broadcasting for 24 hours in protest at openly government- (and church-) backed assaults on staff. Cameraman Alexander Lashkarava apparently had his head staved in by a police baton, and died a few days later.
On assignment for independent TV, he had been picked on and beaten by the mob – and by the police – sustaining concussion and a smashed-up face. He died a few days later. The exact circumstances are still opaque, but it is known he complained of severe pain after being attacked, and had surgery to repair smashed bones in his face. An official investigation has been launched, but during a press conference a Georgian interior ministry official suggested he “might have died of a drug overdose” – seen by his colleagues as a crass attempt to discredit him.
Violence had broken out in earnest last week, when some 50 – 60 journalists were violently beaten with police batons when they tried to cover a protest against a planned gay pride parade in Tbilisi. Politicians and Georgian Orthodox priests egged on the anti-gay mob as they ransacked the offices of pro-LGBTQ groups.
On Tuesday, Lashkarava’s body was carried in an open casket to a Tbilisi cemetery, as hundreds of mourners walked alongside the pallbearers. “Dozens of cameramen and women stopped to applaud,” reported Andrew Roth, Moscow correspondent of the London Guardian.
The plans for a gay pride march plans had been dubbed “provocative and impermissible” by Georgia’s 39-year-old prime minister Irakli Garibashvili, a former business executive and leader of the Georgian Dream party. But his own dream of a European future, set out on the government website, starkly contradicts this lurch towards Russia and autocratic rule.
Journalists have called for 39-year-old Garibashvili’s resignation, accusing him of homophobia, and of failing to mount an effective investigation. Most dramatically, journalists interrupted a government news conference to demand his resignation. “Excuse me, with all due respect to you, today our colleague Lekso Lashkarava will be buried, and I think no one has the right to stand at this podium today,” said a reporter for Formula News, one of the protesting television stations.
He and several colleagues interrupted the government spokeswoman, handing out pictures of Lashkarava’s beaten face. “He is a violent prime minister and must resign” said the reporter. The press then walked out of the room.
On Wednesday, Formula TV Pirveli, and two other stations, Mtavari and Kavkasia, announced they would halt broadcasting for 24 hours in a coordinated protest. The street violence seen in Tbilisi has been the worst in years, recalling a mob led by priests that descended on gay rights protesters in 2013.
Jeanne Cavalier, of Reporters without Borders (RsF), said the coordinated attack on more than 50 journalists, and the suspicious death of Aleksandr Lashkarava, “mark a disastrous turning point for the freedom to inform in Georgia.” He called for “an in-depth, impartial, and transparent investigation of the circumstances of his (Lashkarava’s) death and of the attacks suffered by journalists whom the police failed to protect.”
“We are following the situation very closely, and we are committed to seeing to it that those responsible for this are held accountable,” said Ned Price, a US State Department spokesman, when he was asked this week about the violence.
But a violent, perhaps uncontrollable, craziness is taking hold, as VOA reports:
Hundreds of violent counter-protesters took to the streets against the Pride march scheduled for July 5, and “videos showed anti-LGBT groups waving Georgian flags scaling the Tbilisi Pride headquarters, tearing town pride flags, and ransacking the office,” VOA reported. In a statement announcing the march had been called off, Tbilisi Pride accused the government and church of emboldening a “huge wave of hate” and failing to protect citizens’ rights.
Earlier on July 5, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said it was “inappropriate” to hold a Pride march, arguing that it would create confrontation and was “unacceptable for a large segment of the Georgian society.”
The ousted former President Mikheil Saakashvili‘s United National Movement was accused of being behind it all and seeking to create “unrest.” Videos of the mobs once again showed some Orthodox priests joining the fight, as in 2013.