Some Positive News from Pankisi, Georgia

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Radio Way (ICK/CCA), Duisi, Georgia © Onnik James Krikorian 2016

It’s not often there’s some positive news coming out of Pankisi, better known these days as the birth place of Tarkhan Batirashvili, aka ISIS’ Abu Omar al-Shishani, but some does exist. In addition to being a tranquil and scenic part of Georgia, and perhaps contrary to popular opinion, local civil society is clued up to the problems facing the region and there are individuals and organisations trying to make a difference. One of those is Gela Mtivlishvili, a Georgian journalist who I first encountered at a closed round table on radicalisation in Pankisi we both spoke at late last year.

The main force behind the Information Centre of Kakheti, perhaps the most important resource for news from Pankisi, the Open Society Foundations recently highlighted the work of their grantee, asking if a team of independent journalists can prevent ISIS recruitment in Georgia.

Mtivlishvili founded the Information Center of Kakheti (ICK), an independent media outlet in Georgia. He was the first journalist to uncover the shadowy network of youth recruitment in Pankisi. Until then, Georgian citizens had not considered ISIS a real threat to their country.

Reports from this small but dedicated team of journalists have continued to generate wider coverage of this issue by both mainstream Georgian and international media. Since 2014, ICK has broken several stories about teenagers in Pankisi who left for Syria to join ISIS, and in April 2015, Mtivlishvili wrote about another 17-year-old girl sent to Syria as a bride—this time, chillingly, with her parents’ consent.

Since its founding in 2010 as the first online news source of its kind in Eastern Georgia, ICK has grown from a couple hundred visitors to become the most reliable source of information about the region. It now reaches around 10,000 unique visitors a day, bringing local issues of corruption, discrimination, and social injustice to light in a nation where the internet penetration rate is 40 percent.

On a number of occasions, Mtivlishvili and his peers have been rebuked by government officials for intervening in the country’s security issues and sparking groundless fears. But it’s hard to argue with the facts and the results. ICK might be the only group of journalists with whom local residents are willing to discuss the hidden stories in their community. And because of these investigative efforts, law enforcement agencies are now realizing they must respond to ISIS’s actions and influence in Pankisi Gorge.

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Gela Mtivlishvili (left), Duisi, Georgia © Onnik James Krikorian 2016

So, when Open Society Georgia Foundation Board (OSGF) Member Andro Dadiani said that he was going to visit Pankisi and meet with Gela this weekend just passed, I naturally accepted his invitation of join him. The last time I was in Pankisi was with the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in June.

Coincidentally and perfectly timed, Gela was preparing for today’s launch of a new community radio station for Pankisi, Radio Way, with the Centre For Civic Activities housed in the same office in Duisi. The new initiative is also supported by OSGF and the training of its journalists by the East West Management Institute (EWMI), the host of November’s round table.

the radio will be bilingual – Georgian and Chechen. The broadcasts will be available in both of languages. The youth working at the radio will provide listeners, in the Pankisi Gorge, with original programs and discussions.

The radio will pay close attention to problems that the Pankisi Gorge’s population faces and priorities for the community. The radio will provide balanced information about facts and events, and will demonstrate religious and cultural diversity with a civic integration context.

Radio “WAY” will prepare English and Chechen language classes for listeners on the air. The radio will also play a diverse selection of music: local, foreign, modern and classical. Remembering the strong cultural heritage of the Gorge, the radio will provide listeners with folk music performed by local singers and musicians, which will be recorded by the radio.

The launch of the radio station is to be applauded, especially as one of those involved, journalist Shorena Khangoshvili, told me that news from Syria will be particularly featured. Given concerns about the number of those leaving Pankisi to join the ranks of ISIS especially, and while not intended to be counter-narratives, the need for neutral and objective news from Syria is of course vital. Radio Way also hopes to support and strengthen local culture.

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Radio Way (ICK/CCA), Duisi, Georgia © Onnik James Krikorian 2016

But what makes both the Information Centre of Kakheti and the Centre For Civic Activities even more interesting and relevant to Pankisi is that not only are they housed in the same office, but they’re also in the same building as two other civil society organisations of note — the Roddy Scott Foundation and the Kakheti Regional Development Foundation (KRDF), the latter of which also convened the recent meeting of journalists from IWPR with the Pankisi Council of Elders and Women’s Council.

Meanwhile, the Roddy Scott Foundation, named after a British journalist with a specific love for Pankisi and who died covering Chechnya, is particularly interesting for its Pankisi Times online publication. While educating 150 children in Pankisi, some also write for the web site in English. Unfortunately, the children weren’t at the school when I visited on Saturday, but one was with her mother and sister at the KRDF seamstress project on the floor below.

All in all, four local NGOs working in areas that are not only important for minority communities such as Pankisi in general, but which when taken as a whole offer a holistic if perhaps coincidental alternative to extremist ideology that could take a stronger hold on the community. Combining media, education, and vocational training as well as small business development in one building, all are very definitely worthy of support and further development.

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KRDF Seamstress Project, Duisi, Georgia © Onnik James Krikorian 2016

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