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Georgia: Imedi Opposition TV To Return To Airwaves

The Imedi television studio was badly damaged in a police raid on November 7 (Courtesy Photo) December 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A popular independent broadcaster shut down at the height of Georgia's political crisis last month has been given the green light to resume work.

Imedi Television, which was forcibly taken off the air on November 7, may begin new broadcasts as early as this week.

Georgian authorities shut down all private news stations after large antigovernment protests in early November prompted President Mikheil Saakashvili to impose a state of emergency.

The others have since resumed broadcasts. But Imedi -- whose founder, controversial Georgian billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, is a vocal Saakashvili critic -- remained off the air. A Tbilisi city court ruled to suspend the broadcaster's license and freeze its assets, saying its coverage of the opposition protests amounted to incitement to overthrow the government.

The shutdown left a considerable vacuum in Georgian media. Imedi is the country's most popular broadcaster, with a 70 percent market share. The closure was also loudly lamented by the West, which accused Saakashvili of betraying his commitment to democratic principles. The fact that Imedi is partly owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp only brightened the international spotlight on the case. (Imedi also serves as an affiliate for RFE/RL radio and TV broadcasts in Georgia.)

Last month's crisis ended with Saakashvili, in an apparent sop to his political adversaries, announcing early presidential elections on January 5. The opposition quickly demanded that Imedi be restored to the airwaves before the vote.

Parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, who is serving as the country's acting president until the vote, this week defended the shutdown but said broadcasts should resume to diversify the country's media environment ahead of the vote.

"The decision to freeze [Imedi's] assets was taken in full accordance with the law, and this has been verified by the court," Burjanadze said. "Despite this, I am asking the Prosecutor-General's Office to take into consideration the significance of the special preelection period in the country." She added that the "threat" that necessitated the freezing of Imedi's assets should be "considered liquidated."

Burjanadze's announcement followed a visit to Georgia by Polish journalist and former Solidarity activist Adam Michnik, who was dispatched by the European Union, the United States, and the Polish Foreign Ministry to help resolve the Imedi standoff.

Michnik, the editor in chief of Poland's prominent "Gazeta Wyborcza" newspaper, held what he characterized as "difficult" meetings with members of the Georgian media, political opposition, and the government. He expressed confidence that the broadcasts would be resumed, but issued a stark warning to Georgian authorities, saying a failure to reopen Imedi would be "a threat to democracy in Georgia" and a sign "the Georgian government does not want pluralism in the media."

Imedi employees have been given tentative permission to return to their work premises on December 5, but it is unclear how quickly they will be able to resume broadcasts. Imedi authorities say the station sustained significant damage during the November 7 shutdown, when riot police stormed the building and smashed equipment.

The station's managing director, Bidzina Baratashvili, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service he was grateful to Michnik and others for aiding the station's return to the airwaves. "I can only thank all these organizations and individuals," he said. "But I hope that common sense also prevailed in the governmental structures. I have to acknowledge that, in the end, the government made a constructive decision, and I do not think it resulted solely from pressure."

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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