Monday, November 12, 2007

Media: Independent media taken off the air in Georgia

Independent media were taken off the air in Georgia when President Mikhail Saakashvili declared a state of emergency in response to mass anti-government demonstrations in Tbilisi. VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky is in the Georgian capital, where managers of the country's most popular independent television station told him the shutdown was not just a matter of turning off a switch.

Until it was forced off the air, Imedi TV was rated Georgia's most popular television station. Today, Imedi, which means "Hope" in the Georgian language, is out of business - no broadcasts, no advertising revenue.

The station's general director, Bidzina Baratashvili, says troops barged into Imedi's studio at nine o'clock on the evening of November 7, without identification or warrants.

Baratashvili says they held guns to the heads of employees, including his own, and destroyed 90 percent of the station's equipment, cutting cables and upsetting editing suites, studios and control rooms. He says even an irreplaceable video tape library was demolished. The damage is documented on photographs taken with a cell phone camera that was not confiscated during the raid.

Baratashvili says he prefers not to believe that Georgian leaders, who declare principles of democracy and free speech, would give an order to vandalize and destroy everything that happened to be in the way.

But an American businessman from Atlanta, Georgia and chief executive officer of Imedi TV, Louis Robertson, is less charitable. He accuses the president of ordering the raid, and the local mayor of being part of it.

Robertson represents News Corporation, a co-owner of Imedi along with billionaire businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili a declared candidate for the Georgian presidency. On October 31, Patarkatsishvili gave News Corporation 100 percent control of management to avoid conflict of interest at the station. News Corps, the world's largest media organization, is owned by Australian-American billionaire Rupert Murdoch.

Robertson says the company will file a suit against the Georgian government at the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg and will also sue for damages. In addition to its business interests, Robertson says News Corporation must also protect the principle of a free press.

"This is a bigger issue than Georgia, and I do not think that the government understands that," said Louis Robertson. "And if they think that News Corporation will back down on this and say, 'OK, let us just forget it,' they are wrong, because this will happen again in another country, and another country, and another country, and pretty soon you do not have any press at all."

Meanwhile, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza arrived in Georgia calling for an end to the state of emergency and restoration of all independent media. He met on with Imedi representatives, noting theirs is not the only station affected by emergency rule.

"Viewers are smart enough, astute enough, to recognize Imedi portrays one view, Rustavi Two portrays another view," said Matthew Bryza. "You have to have all of those views out there in the marketplace of ideas, or you cannot argue you have a vibrant democracy. So, all broadcasts need to be resumed."

Imedi offices remain closed. Station officials say members of the European Commission were allowed in over the weekend. Louis Robertson says they reported the premises were too clean, with a lingering scent of cleaning solution and desks arranged so neatly as to suggest no work had ever been done there.

By Peter Fedynsky Tbilisi
Published with the permission of Voice of America