David Mdzinarishvili\TASS via Getty Images

Georgian far-right launches disinformation campaign following death of journalist beaten in anti-LGBTQ attack

Influential YouTubers and political figures blame pro-Western liberals for the death of a TV cameraman targeted in the violent reaction to Tbilisi Pride

On July 11, thousands gathered outside Georgia’s national parliament in Tbilisi to mourn the death of Aleksandre Lashkarava, a local TV cameraman. Lashkarava was one of over 50 journalists injured in attacks by a violent far-right and anti-LGBTQ mob while attempting to cover what would have been Tbilisi Pride on July 5. 

Lashkarava, who worked for the local opposition TV channel TV Pirveli, had suffered a number of injuries, including a concussion. After undergoing surgery, he was discharged from hospital and was receiving treatment at home. An official cause of death has not been announced.

Sunday’s protests were led by civil rights organizations and activists demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili. Speakers accused the government and the Georgian Orthodox Church of sanctioning the violence. The church organized what was billed as a public prayer meeting on July 5, but priests and members of violent radical groups were seen threatening journalists.

At a government meeting on Monday, Gharibashvili said the administration condemned the July 5 violence and was investigating Lashkarava’s death. He repeated an earlier statement that the planned Pride March was a provocation and said that opposition groups were using the tragedy to further their political aims. 

“The investigation is working on several theories, including the theory of how those aggressive people appeared there and why they deliberately attacked journalists and camera operators,” he said. “This is a legitimate question that the investigation should answer.” 

Lashkarava’s death has unleashed a disinformation campaign by far-right groups.

In a special YouTube episode of a political commentary show by Alt Info, an alt-right group that led the July 5 anti-LGBTQ protests, host Irakli Martinenko referred to the involvement of “liberals” in Lashkarava’s death. “They probably sacrificed, murdered, one of their own and are now using it politically,” he told Alt Info’s nearly 17,000 subscribers. “Generally, the way the liberals fight differs from that of the conservatives. The main tool for the liberals is taking the position of victim.”

The disinformation angle has been picked up by other prominent figures in Georgia. On July 11, Levan Vasadze — an ultra-conservative public figure and businessman who has long campaigned against the LGBTQ community and has strong ties with pro-Kremlin actors such as the Russian far-right ideologue Aleksandr Dugin — made a video statement on the Georgian-language channel of the World Congress of Families, a U.S. and Russia-led coalition of right-wing Christians who oppose same-sex marriage and abortion and which has just under 65,000 Facebook followers. 

In the video, Vasadze cast suspicion on the timing and circumstances of Lashkarava’s death. He also called out the U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Dagnan for pressuring the Georgian government to let “this provocation take place,” referring to the Pride march. 

James Nixey, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, said the attempts to obfuscate the circumstances of Lashkarava’s death bore all the hallmarks of a disinformation strategy. “These are tried and tested tactics in Georgia from enemies foreign and domestic, and those domestic enemies are often funded by the foreign. There’s a merging of tactics there and we’ve seen it before.” 

LGBTQ rights have been in the firing line in a number of countries in Europe. Last week, Hungary passed a new law banning the dissemination of educational material viewed as promoting homosexuality in schools. In Poland, Andrzej Duda won a second presidential term last year on a platform of anti-gay rhetoric. In March, the nation’s government banned same-sex couples from adopting children and since the summer of 2019, more than 100 towns and areas have declared themselves “LGBT-free.”

“There’s the trend of an illiberal streak we see running across Europe from Brexit to the rise of the far-right in France,” said Nixey. “You move from there into Eastern Europe and the intolerance shown by the Polish and Hungarian governments there. It’s all part and parcel of the same thing, but each one has its specificities.”

Lashkarava’s death caused wide discussion on Georgian Facebook as well, where many echoed the unproven theories of the Alt Info anchors.

“The United National Movement sectarians forced him on TV channels to yell that he had been beaten. Then they killed him with narcotics, so that they could get people’s support and cause unrest in Georgia in the name of the deceased,” said one user, referring to the main opposition party politicians and supporters.

While Alt-Info’s website and Facebook page were both suspended on Sunday for as yet unknown reasons, its Telegram group of over 2,600 subscribers has been filled with discussion about Lashkarava’s death.

“The guy died of an overdose and they are calling us murderers,” one of the Telegram group members commented.

The comments echoed speculation by allegedly far-right users on Facebook that Lashkarava had been under the influence of alcohol or drugs the day before his death. The theories point to July 10 street camera footage released by the Interior Ministry, which allegedly shows Lashkarava stumbling while walking.

On July 13, as dozens of mourners gathered at Lashkarava’s funeral to pay respects, a group of journalists disrupted a health briefing by Georgia’s deputy health minister, Tamar Gabunia. 

One journalist who interrupted the briefing held up a photo of Lashkarava and a sign that called for Gharibashvili’s resignation. “Irakli Gharibashvili must resign because he is the number 1 homophobe in our country and he is a violent prime minister,” he said.

Additional reporting by Burhan Wazir

Additional research by Sophiko Vasadze and Masho Lomashvili

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