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Georgia's Media Landscape Shifts In Wake Of Historic Election

Imedi-TV, one of Georgia's most popular television channels, seems set to lead the way for the transfer of power in the media away from the former ruling party of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Imedi-TV, one of Georgia's most popular television channels, seems set to lead the way for the transfer of power in the media away from the former ruling party of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Everyone expected changes to Georgia's media environment following the Georgian Dream coalition's election victory on October 1. But few expected them to come so quickly.

It's still days before the new parliament convenes for the first time to confirm Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili as prime minister and to endorse his cabinet, but already the landscape is shifting dramatically.

On October 16, Imedi-TV, one of Georgia's most popular television channels, broadcast a cryptic announcement saying that ownership of the holding had been "transferred" to the family of late businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, the station's founder. For the last three years, Imedi has been run by Giorgi Arveladze, a longtime ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The day before, journalists at the Russian-language PIK channel aired a news broadcast without sound to protest their inability to get information about the station's finances and future.

The tremors in the Georgian television market are indicative of how closely the country's media environment is connected to its politics. The lack of a truly independent press since the country's 2003 Rose Revolution has been one of the key disappointments of Saakashvili's rule.

A report this year by the U.S.-based NGO Human Rights Watch notes that national television is dominated by state-owned or pro-government broadcasters, that independent journalists have been subject to "politically motivated" prosecutions for their coverage of antigovernment protests, and that the Finance Ministry has launched audits of independent media outlets that seemed to be targeted for their political coverage.

The U.S. NGO Freedom House wrote in 2011 that state television "is perceived as politicized and partisan" in support of Saakashvili.

Imedi In The Spotlight

Imedi's tumultuous history is indicative of the politicized media environment.

Patarkatsishvili founded Imedi in 2003 as an independent television station, but over the years its editorial line became increasingly antigovernment. It played a key role in promoting opposition protests in downtown Tbilisi in November 2007 that were violently dispersed by police. After the demonstrations, Imedi was raided by riot police and taken off the air for months.

Imedi-TV's studios were left in a shambles after a police raid in November 2007.
Imedi-TV's studios were left in a shambles after a police raid in November 2007.

Patarkatsishvili unsuccessfully ran against Saakashvili in the January 2008 presidential election and died in the United Kingdom of apparent heart failure a month later. After his death, the ownership of Imedi came into dispute, but control of the station fell to Saakashvili ally Arveladze.

Giorgi Targamadze, a politician and former Imedi journalist who was on the air when the authorities raided the station in November 2007, sees justice in the October 16 announcement.

"It took quite a long time for the truth to gain the upper hand, but the story has ended logically, appropriately, as it should have ended," Targamadze says.

"Badri Patarkatsishvili founded Imedi TV, and it was thanks to him that the company functioned for several years. And I don't think anyone ever doubted that this television company belonged to Patarkatsishvili's family. In other words, justice has been restored."

Rustavi-2, Mze To Follow?

Georgia's other main independent broadcaster, Rustavi-2, could follow a similar path.

After Georgian Dream's election victory, businessman Kibar Khalvashi -- whose sister won a parliament seat as a Georgian Dream member -- announced that he would file a legal action to regain control of the station.

Khalvashi, who now lives in Germany, alleges that he was forced to sell the property and flee the country. Since 2006, the station has been controlled by business interests close to Saakashvili.

Rustavi-2 also owns the smaller station Mze, which was launched in 2003 by businessman Vano Chkhartishvili. Chkhartishvili announced this week that he would also file a legal challenge to regain control of Mze. Although the station has been apolitical since 2006, Chkhartishvili says he would like to restore it to its previous stature.

Similar situations could be played out in the coming months regarding the ownership of many regional Georgian television stations. Many former owners allege the stations were illegally taken over by Georgian Public Broadcasting during Saakashvili's time in power.

Does PIK Have A Future?

Meanwhile, the Russian-language PIK television's silent protest on October 15 was intended to draw attention to the fact that Georgian Public Broadcasting, which funds PIK and arranges for its distribution, had pulled the channel from its satellite. In addition, journalists say their September salaries were delayed, although the arrears have apparently been paid.

Kanal PIK was accused of following the government line too closely.
Kanal PIK was accused of following the government line too closely.
"We are asking these questions: why, without explaining the reasons, has PIK disappeared from the satellite? And why are their no guarantees that we will receive our salaries next month?" PIK news director Yekaterina Kotrikadze explained to RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus.

"No one can legally tear up our contracts, considering that all PIK employees are meeting their obligations and they were not warned that the station would be closed. And finally, we simply do not understand why the channel might be closed down -- there is no reason for it."

PIK, which was launched in January 2011, was intended to counter pro-Moscow reporting about Georgia. It broadcasts throughout the Caucasus and the European part of Russia. However, it has been widely criticized -- including by Ivanishvili -- for its blanket anti-Russian views and for its uncritical support of Saakashvili.

PIK senior editor Nicholas Clayton acknowledged in his blog that "we likely could have done a better job in respecting the line between the Georgian government and the ruling party -- a line the government itself regularly blurred."

Independent media analyst Zviad Koridze says there is no need for Georgian taxpayers to support a channel with PIK's mission. "This channel is purely propagandistic -- created to propagandize Georgian policies in Russia and to show how strong and good we are," he says.

"Such television should not exist on state money. Public money shouldn't be used for such projects, which are obvious losers politically and as businesses and as media."

Koridze notes that Georgian Public Broadcasting as a whole is notoriously opaque in terms of its management and its finances. He sees the new attitude toward PIK as just the first step in a general reexamination of the holding, which also controls Georgia's First Channel and Second Channel.

[Disclosure: RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus broadcast its weekly "Free Talk" program on PIK until January 2012, and former RFE/RL Georgian Service Director Robert Parsons was the station's first director.]

RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus correspondent Temuri Kiguradze contributed to this report

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