Russian-speakers in the Caucasus, Europe, Russia, and beyond now have a new place to turn for news.
The Georgia-based Kanal PIK ("Pervy Informatsionny Kavkazsky," or First Caucasus News) has made its television debut.
For six hours a night, the channel will broadcast news, documentaries, and cultural programs about the Caucasus and the wider world to audiences who until now have had only Kremlin-dominated stations to turn to for their Russian-language news.
Kanal PIK director Robert Parsons, a former BBC Moscow correspondent and former director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, says the station seeks to fill an information gap when it comes to news about the North and South Caucasus.
PIK director Robert Parsons
"By and large, particularly if you talk about Russian television, the coverage of Georgia is almost uniformly negative. And that's certainly one of the things that we hope to correct because it distorts the image of this country,” Parsons says.
"We're not targeting Russia or the Russian government. We're not seeking to pick battles with anybody. What we see our aim as being is to satisfy a thirst that people have for honest information."Not The First Try
This is not the first attempt by Georgia to set up a Russian-language channel. A previous project, First Caucasian, was launched last year but almost immediately lost its satellite signal after Russia's Gazprom energy giant bought out nearly all of the satellite's broadcast space.
This time, Parsons says he anticipates no technical snafus, and that satellite transmissions of Kanal PIK will be available throughout Russia, Western Europe, the North and South Caucasus, Turkey, Iran, and Israel.
The station will also run a live feed on its website
and hopes to eventually offer cable coverage to Russian-speaking populations in the United States and elsewhere.
If it succeeds, Kanal PIK will represent the first major Russian-language alternative in a media market dominated by Russian television channels.
Moscow has actively spread its own global influence with the Russia Today network, which broadcasts the Kremlin's view of Russia worldwide in Russian, English, Spanish, and Arabic.
Kanal PIK's reach may initially be more modest. But Parsons says the station has virtually no competition when it comes to focusing on areas of the world that are frequently ignored by mainstream media in Russia and the West.
North Caucasus Could Make News
One such area is the North Caucasus, which might occasionally make headline news when tied to terrorist acts in the rest of Russia -- but where Parsons says day-to-day violence goes largely ignored.
"On a daily basis, we'll be covering issues about what goes on inside Chechnya, what goes on in the North Caucasus -- the kidnappings, the disappearances -- all those things which happen on a daily basis which are hardly reported at all in either the Russian or the Western media," he says.
Kanal PIK receives its funding, including a 7 million-euro ($10 million) startup budget, from the Georgian government, and will effectively operate as the country's third public broadcaster.
The deal came under criticism from some media observers in Georgia, who said the deal was struck last summer without the benefit of a proper tender.
But defenders have praised the channel's management, which includes a clutch of prominent foreign journalists, including Parsons and David Chater, formerly of Sky News and Al-Jazeera. They say Kanal PIK represents a rare opportunity to counter Moscow-dominated news and bring professional, Western-style journalism to the Caucasus.
For Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has repeatedly found himself on the losing end of Moscow's propaganda machine, the prospect of funding an alternative Russian-language broadcaster may seem like public funds well spent, as well as an appealing platform.
Saakashvili was the first guest on Kanal PIK's maiden broadcast on January 25, answering questions from the Georgian public. In that appearance, Saakashvili blasted what he called the Russian "occupation" of his country in a reference to Georgia's Moscow-backed rebel regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He compared Russia to a "crocodile" that was ready to "swallow" his country.
Parsons has denied Kanal PIK will be "just another propaganda channel." But Zviad Koridze, a prominent Georgian journalist and media analyst, says the station will need to be careful to give the impression that it is working for the sake of news in the Caucasus, and not just interests of the Georgian government.
“Any television station whose function has a propagandistic character might have difficulty maintaining some kind of media standards, even the standards which Robert Parsons [and] David Chater were so devoted to preserving during the course of their own professional careers,” Koridze says.
“This channel does have its own propagandistic function. Look at the first broadcast -- it will be the Georgian president speaking to the people and taking calls." Kanal PIK will be transmitted by satellite Hot Bird @ E13' (transponder: 65, frequency: 12015 MHz, polarization: horizontal (H), S/R: 27500, FEC:3/4), and through www.pik.tv online.written by Daisy Sindelar, with contributions from RFE/RL’s Georgian Service