In a remote mountain area in Eastern Georgia, a journalist and human rights activist started a campaign that has catapulted the region into the digital age. People living here are suddenly connected to the wider world.
The remote settlement of Sakhile lies 1,460 meters above sea level, deep in the Khevsureti mountain region in eastern Georgia. From here the inhabitants of the one and only house in Sakhile have a breathtaking view over forests, deep gorges, and wild rivers. There is no other settlement around. Dusheti R-on, the nearest small town is a two-hour car-drive away. Thanks to its beauty, the region is a secret getaway for nature lovers, who share pictures of its fortified castles, ancient shrines, and tombs under the hashtag #khevsureti on YouTube and social media. But Khevsureti’s inhabitants are oblivious to the craze—without access to the Internet or even telephone lines; the world of social media is uncharted territory for them.
Gela Mtivlishvili loves to hike here. He could simply spend his holidays enjoying the tranquility of the mountains. Instead the trained lawyer, human rights activist, and journalist chose a path nobody else did. Mtivlishvili committed himself to developing the economically deprived region by building a new communication infrastructure and by establishing a new form of citizen journalism focusing on mountain stories, which give the people living there a voice.
Yet giving them a voice is as difficult as the roads to Sakhile are muddy and bumpy. Manana Arabuli, who lives here with her family, takes care of a small vegetable garden where potatoes, beans, and strawberries grow. She also tends to cows, ducks and chickens. Her husband Gurami is a tractor driver. Their two sons, Gigi and Giorgi only come home on weekends. Gigi, who is 18, is studying engineering at the technical university in Tbilisi, 120 km away from home. His brother, who is 15, is enrolled at a boarding school, as there is no school close by. During wintertime, when the settlement is occasionally isolated due to the snow, they often have to wait months before they can return home and see their parents. And as there is no phone or Internet connection, communicating with their parents is impossible when away from home. In emergencies, Manana and Gurami climb to the top of the mountain, in the hope that they get just enough phone signal for their mobile.
Information for the mountain dwellers
When journalist Mtivlishvili heard Gigi and Giorgi Arabuli’s experiences of life in Sakhile, their testimonials helped him envision a better future for the mountains. The brothers had told him that they did not wish to swap the region for the cities like so many others already had done. The two would rather work on improving the situation for the people living there and they had concrete plans: Gigi wants to build road and bridges; Giorgi wants to build wooden houses for tourists. But they are aware that this would be impossible without the region being connected to the Internet.
Gela Mtivlishvili bursts with energy and not just when he hikes on the narrow mountain paths of Khevsureti. Once he gets an idea into his head, he doesn’t waste a moment to make it a reality. It became clear for Mtivlishvili that in general, people were leaving their homes not only because of the poor infrastructure, lacking job opportunities, or medical care, but also due to the lack of Internet and mobile connection. The deprivation was not just economic but informational.
70 villages in Khevsureti have not been digitalized and more than 30 villages had no access to the telephone network. This was not only hindering the development of the area, but also had other disadvantages for the remaining villagers: many of the official forms, applications, and documents of the country can in the meantime only be accessed online. And last but not least, the people in Khevsureti wanted to be informed.
Existing news sites focused heavily on political stories from the capital rather than regional issues. And because that the economically underdeveloped hinterlands were not covered in the at all, that Mtivlishvili was determined to launch a media outlet with a focus on the people who live there.
Making a difference
In 2016, Mtishvili set up the multimedia online news website MtisAmbebi.ge, which translated means "story of the mountains." Reports on the site focus on regional news and on the people who live there, their work and leisure, their dreams and struggles. It is run by the Network of Information Centers (NIC) a community media and news organization, which Mtivlishvili had founded earlier to qualify citizen reporters, the first of its kind in the country.
Around ten young people volunteer as citizen journalists for MtisAmbebi.ge. Eight of them still live in the mountain area, the other two visit frequently. For Mtivlishvili it was important that they have the capacity to conduct a journalistic interview, shoot well, make a touching film, and produce a balanced story. They have all completed several training courses run by NIC. Nevertheless, there is an editorial process and "all stories are fact checked before they go online," says Mtivlishvili. Maintaining high journalistic standards is so important to him, he usually performs final edits himself—even if that means spending nights verifying articles before they go online.
But reporting was not enough for Mtivlishvili. Additionally, he started fundraising for what he called the "Digitalization of Khevsureti" project. "We fought a lot," he says. "We not only visited various international organizations, but also the Ministry of Economy and explained the importance of the project to them. Finally, we collected altogether around 130,000 EUR from various international organizations and mainly from the Georgian government."
This money made all the difference. In the winter of 2018, Mtivlishvili said, "We are waiting for the snow to melt, because the transmission masts for the Internet have to be installed on the summit of the mountains. It’s a difficult process (…) and I promise that 70 villages and 1300 inhabitants, including 200 children, will have access to the Internet and in autumn over 20 villages near the Russian border will also have access to a mobile phone connection."
Three months later, the masts were installed. Currently, more than 60 mountain villages have access to highspeed Internet and in an additional 30 villages people for the first time are able to make telephone calls or use social media.
The stories of the mountains are going viral
With this new infrastructure and the media outlet Mtisambebi.ge, Mtivlishvili has managed to shine the spotlight on the nearly forgotten mountain areas. National media often pick up their articles and Georgians from across the country regularly follow the stories on their website.
One article even went viral: The story of an old man who lived alone in the middle of the mountains in a rundown house with no heating. The video of volunteers shouldering heavy cement sacks and working to build a new house for the old man was clicked more then 250,000 times, a huge number for a small online news-website and a country with only around 3.7 million inhabitants. "By showing exciting stories and by raising awareness about the problems of the rural communities MtisAmbebi.ge did manage to give the people a voice (...)," praises Zviad Koridze, a Georgian journalist and media expert. "The main function of media in a modern world is that nobody should be left without a voice in the media, especially not those living alone in a remote village," he says.
The stories of the mountain regions not only attracted Georgian experts and the audience, but also the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which regularly feature stories from the MtisAmbebi.ge citizen journalists. After negotiations Mtivlishvili and the BBC agreed to regularly translate the contents of MtisAmbebi.ge into English.
After three years of operation, NIC will be able to continue the Mtisambebi.ge project without the continued support of DW Akademie. Mtivlishvili is going to finance the website through advertisement and he is developing a strategy for crowd funding. It is not unlikely that Giorgi will one day be making his living by hosting tourists in the remote settlement of Sakhile. Next spring, after the snow melts again, more masts will be installed and then Georgi will be connected. All he needs to then do is set up his own tourist website showing pictures of the stunning Georgian mountains.
Tinatin Dvalishvili started her career in journalism 20 years ago. Since 2017 she has been working for the DW Akademie in Georgia. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media management.
Petra Aldenrath loves to write portraits and long-form articles. She is an experienced journalist who has worked for newspapers, magazines and radio and has been published in several books. For five years she was the ARD correspondent for Mongolia and China. She has also worked as a freelance reporter from Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Canada and Israel. She has been working at the DW Akademie since 2018. She is particularly interested in telling the stories behind the organization's diverse media development projects.
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