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Georgia: Criticism Mounting Over Media Crackdown

Imedi TV has been taken off the air (AFP) November 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Criticism is mounting over Georgian authorities' clampdown on nongovernment media after several TV stations broadcast images of riot police violently dispersing protesters at the end of a five-day opposition demonstration.

The media ban, which affects all nonstate television and radio, was imposed on November 7, when President Mikheil Saakashvili declared a 15-day state of emergency.

Private broadcasters Imedi, Kavkasia, and Rustavi-2 were all taken off the air. A television station based in the Black Sea port city of Batumi has also been shut off.

Broadcasts for some may be reestablished when the state of emergency is lifted, which may come as early as November 16. But for now, the sole source of broadcast news in the wake of the largest public protests since the 2003 Rose Revolution is pro-government, state-run television.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, speaking today in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, said Western officials are distressed by the crackdown and call on the Georgian government to restore full broadcasting rights to all media outlets.

"I have been instructed to stress the importance of Imedi TV and Kavkasia TV and, well, all broadcasts being restored. The symbolism of closing down television broadcasts sends shockwaves through our capitals, be it in the United States or in Europe," Bryza said.

The Brussels-based Association of Commercial Television (ACT), which represents broadcasters' interests in 34 European countries, likewise condemned the move. Ross Biggam, ACT's director-general, said "there are no circumstances in a democratic society which can justify military policemen forcing an independent broadcaster off air."

Imedi Under Fire

At the center of the issue is Imedi, whose founder and co-owner, Georgian billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, is a vocal critic of Saakashvili's government and has declared his intention to run as an opposition candidate in the early presidential election in January.

Patarkatsishvili, who amassed much of his fortune in dubious deals in Russia in the 1990s, is a highly controversial figure. He has close ties to exiled Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky and Andrei Lugovoi, the British government's main suspect in the 2006 poisoning death of Russian former state security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko.

Imedi, however, is a legitimately popular broadcaster in Georgia, attracting upwards of 70 percent of the viewing audience. It is also the only broadcaster in Georgia with a prominent foreign partner -- the Australian-born media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp holds a large minority stake in Imedi. Imedi also serves as an affiliate for RFE/RL radio and TV broadcasts in Georgia.

Damage at Imedi's studio on November 7 (courtesy photo)

Imedi broadcasts were forcibly removed from the air on the evening of November 7, when riot police stormed the building. Imedi's American director, Lewis Robertson, said police threatened employees and damaged equipment during the raid.

Peter Semneby, the EU's special representative to the South Caucasus, said after a tour of the broadcaster's headquarters that it showed "clear signs of disorder that had obviously taken place as a result of Interior [Ministry] forces" entering the premises.

The Georgian government has yet to offer an explanation for the severity of the raids. Bryza said today officials in Tbilisi were "genuinely concerned" that Imedi broadcasts -- which appeared to inflate casualty figures from the protest dispersal, and whose live coverage focused on the brutality of the riot police -- were inciting people to violence.

But a number of Western observers have condemned last week's events, saying Saakashvili has failed to honor his spoken commitment to democratic principles, in particular freedom of the press.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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