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Independent Georgian TV Channel Under Pressure


Mamuka Ghlonti (left), with David Akubardia, TV anchor of TV Kavkazia

Mamuka Ghlonti (left), with David Akubardia, TV anchor of TV Kavkazia

Mamuka Ghlonti, owner of the independent Georgian TV channel Maestro TV, told journalists in Tbilisi on October 7 that the Georgian authorities are exerting pressure on the country's major cable-television companies not to cooperate with him.

Ten days earlier, Ghlonti had addressed an open letter to President Mikheil Saakashvili challenging his September 24 assertion to the UN General Assembly that "we have given opposition-controlled stations license to transmit across the nation."

Ghlonti listed the harassment and reprisals to which his station has been subjected and pointed out that it is not the Georgian leadership that issues broadcast licenses: that procedure is stipulated by law. Ghlonti also flatly rejected Saakashvili's characterization of Maestro as controlled by the political opposition.

Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze responded to Ghlonti's open letter by accusing Maestro of having advocated a coup d'etat at the height of the opposition protests in June-July aimed at forcing Saakashvili to step down and call early presidential and parliamentary elections, according to the daily "Alia" on September 29. Ghlonti immediately rejected that allegation, asking rhetorically why, if it were true, the authorities had not arrested him before now.

Launched in the 1990s as a music and entertainment channel, Maestro applied in December 2007 for a license to broadcast political programming. When the Georgian National Communications Commission, the body tasked with issuing such licenses, finally rejected Maestro's application in April 2008, Ghlonti appealed that rejection to the Tbilisi city court, which on September 30 upheld it. Ghlonti then submitted a repeat application, which was approved only after parliament speaker David Bakradze summoned Communications Commission head Giorgi Arveladze and ordered him to issue the required license.

Almost immediately, however, Maestro's political coverage incurred official displeasure, in particular the daily program "Cell No. 5," in which popular singer Giorgi Gachechiladze, whose brother Levan ran unsuccessfully against Saakashvili in the January 2008 presidential ballot, comments on domestic political developments from an improvised prison cell.

In early February, just weeks after the launch of that program, the daily "Rezonansi" quoted Ghlonti as saying he had received warnings from acquaintances in the Constitutional Security Department that Maestro could be shut down.

But despite those warnings, Maestro made the decision to broadcast extensive coverage of the opposition protests launched on April 9 with the aim of pressuring Saakashvili to resign. The main entrance of the building that houses Maestro's studios was damaged in a grenade explosion during the night of May 24-25, but no one was injured. Reporters Without Borders called on the Georgian authorities to launch an investigation into the blast; the perpetrator has not been found.

Just days after that incident, the Communications Commission postponed a meeting convened to review Maestro's application to begin satellite broadcasting; approval was finally granted on July 3. In mid-June, Maestro and a second independent channel, Kavkazia, temporarily suspended broadcasting to protest police reprisals against their journalists seeking to cover the ongoing anti-Saakashvili protests in Tbilisi.

Meanwhile, cable providers in Rustavi and Akhmeta Raion stopped broadcasting Maestro's programs. Maestro still broadcasts on cable in Tbilisi, Telavi, and Gori.

Its plans to expand into satellite broadcasting and launch a 24-hour information program are in jeopardy, however, due to financial constraints. In late September Ghlonti estimated the costs at $18,000 per month and appealed to viewers for donations.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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