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Georgia Satellite Channel Claims Kremlin Pressure Took It Off The Air

Program director and general producer Zurab Dvali, of Russian-language TV station First Caucasian
(RFE/RL) -- A newly established Georgian satellite television channel is claiming that it was taken off the air by its France-based provider due to pressure from the Russian government.

The Russian-language First Caucasian channel, run by Georgia's Public Television, was launched on satellite on January 15, targeting Russian-speakers in the region.

Representatives of First Caucasian say their French satellite provider, Eutelsat, stopped transmitting the channel after signing what they describe as a "lucrative contract" with the Russian satellite company Intersputnik.

In a statement sent to the French AFP news agency, First Caucasian accused Eutelsat of being a "tool of Russian censorship."

Public Television head Gia Chanturia told RFE/RL's Ekho Kavkaza that after Eutelsat signed the contract with Intersputnik, it requested "urgent" talks with First Caucasian.

"It is very strange," Chanturia said. "First we received information that they had problems with our content. Then they said this wasn't the problem, that it was a technical issue. Then they said it wasn't a technical problem but a commercial issue. We're still trying to figure this out."

Eutelsat denied that it was pressured by Moscow, and said it has had a contract with Intersputnik for years that was recently renewed.

The company also said it had carried First Caucasian's broadcasts for a weeklong test period in January and is now waiting for the channel to sign a contract to resume broadcasts. Vanessa O'Connor, a spokeswomen for Eutelsat, told AFP that the provider is prepared to sign a contract with First Caucasian and begin broadcasts.

Crowded Out?

First Caucasian representatives said, however, that Gazprom Media Group, a subsidiary of Russia's state-run natural gas monopoly, has bought up most of space on the Intersputnik satellite covering the Caucasus region. As a result, they said, the remaining space on the Intersputnik satellite that Eutelsat is offering First Caucasian is not sufficient to provide reliable coverage for the region.

In its statement to AFP, First Caucasian said Eutelsat's move "leaves Intersputnik and Gazprom Media Group -- both of which adhere to the Kremlin's editorial line -- with a de facto satellite transmission monopoly over Russian-language audience."

In 2008, the Paris-based Eutelsat was accused of caving in to pressure from Chinese authorities to suspend the use of one of its satellites for an independent Chinese-language broadcaster.

Zurab Dvali, First Caucasian executive producer, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that the channel will remain on the air, although not necessarily with Eutelsat. He said the channel is exploring using either U.S. or Turkish satellites, whom he describes as "partners that are more reliable in such matters," to broadcast its programming.

Moscow Irritant

"To repeat once again," Dvali said, "First Caucasian is continuing to operate normally and it will remain on a satellite -- whether Moscow likes this or not."

First Caucasian also said it will pursue legal remedies in France against Eutelsat.

The publicly funded First Caucasian channel was established in a period of high tension between Russia and Georgia, who fought a bitter five-day war in August 2008 over the pro-Moscow breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The channel provides entertainment, news, and current affairs programming for the Caucasus region. Its availability, particularly in the volatile North Caucasus region, has irritated the Kremlin.

The channel began limited experimental broadcasts on January 15 and was expected to be widely available in the beginning of February.

Among European countries, France, Germany, and Italy have generally tended to be more pliant than other EU and NATO member states regarding Russia's sensitivities in the former Soviet space. The three countries, for example, were widely viewed as being the driving force behind NATO denying Georgian a Membership Action Plan at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest. More recently, France has reportedly agreed to sell Russia a state-of-the art Mistral warship, against the wishes of other NATO members.

Koba Liklikadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service and Alsu Kurmasheva of RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus, which broadcasts in the Russian language to Georgia and its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, contributed to this report