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Beacon of Democracy VS Freedom of Expression

Gela Mtivlishvili, Kakheti

On February 11-12 international conference was organized regarding the anniversary of the establishment of the institute of Public Defender in Georgia. On the final day of the conference Ia Antadze, journalist for the Radio “Liberty” and Vakho Komakhidze, director of Studio “Reporter,” introduced ombudsmen of foreign countries with the media situation in Georgia; they mentioned concrete facts when rights of journalists were breached. Association of Regional TV Broadcasters responded to the reports of Antadze and Komakhidze by making statements and assessed the incidents with journalists as an attempt to discredit regional TV Companies.

Regional Media of Georgia – Small Circulation of Truth

“Main income of regional TV Companies comes from agreements they sign with local authority. Local news is reported everyday on local TV stations. Only two regional TV Companies are implementing projects that aim to organize TV debates during non-election period. The quality of freedom of expression is not high; however, most population watches them to get information about the activities in their region. Mostly regional TV Companies work on announcing necrologies that is main stable source for income”, said Ia Antadze in her presentation and added that local Radio Companies work at higher quality. Most of them are partners of Radio “Liberty” that directly impacts on the quality of their independence. 

 “The situation is much better regarding regional printed media. About 15 newspapers work in various towns of Georgia with more-or-less stability. Main source for their funding is advertising and program funding from foreign donors. Freedom of expression is high in regional newspapers and consequently, people trust them,” said Ia Antadze.

Rights of Journalists in Regions

Ia Antadze spoke about the facts when rights of journalists were breached in regions.

“Journalists cope with many problems in the regions; in such a small country where everybody is relative, friend or neighbor in small district centers it is difficult to write criticizing articles in newspaper. 8-9 years ago, when local independent newspapers were first established in various cities of Georgia, journalists encountered with the problems that is characteristic for countries with collective culture: how could a journalist publish an article in local newspaper that could harm his/her relative? Or just his/her relative would not like the article? When journalists overcame this barrier, now they have faced another bigger problem-local governmental officials started to breach their rights and intimidate them,” said Antadze and recalled several facts of intimidation of journalists that were recorded in the reports of the public defender as well.

“Last summer, regional newspaper “Batumelebi” received an anonymous e-mail where the author threatened the editorial board of the newspaper that soon they would find one of their journalists (concrete name was mentioned in the letter) dead with a newspaper stuck in his mouth. The anonymous author threatened the editor of the newspaper too. We can recall an incident when a hand-mine was exploded in the yard of Gela Mtivlishvili’s house in Gurjaani, Kakheti region. Saba Tsitsikashvili, journalist from Gori, Shida Kartli region was beaten almost to death. In Kutaisi, a journalist from Tbilisi was beaten in the yard of local TV Company who argued with Imereti regional governor during the live TV-program several minutes before. Several days ago, officers from the Special Operative Department arrested journalist Natia Rokva in Batumi who was taking photos of people gathered in the street. Later it was found out that SOD was conducting special operation in one of the buildings in the area and people gathered to watch it. On January 7 and 8, 2009 drunken Soso Martashvili, head of Gurjaani police department, cursed local journalists and then entire Georgian media; he also threatened the journalists with detention unless they stop their activities. Several days ago, Anton Khundadze, chairperson of Chokhatauri municipality board, threatened journalists of the local newspaper “Guria News” with intimidation. Audio-recordings of both incidents, where local officials threatened regional journalists, were spread by those media-sources which are more independent than other media sources. However, government did not have any reaction regarding above-mentioned incidents. In best occasions their reaction is formal but mostly they are completely indifferent to the problems of journalists,” said Ia Antadze.

Beacon of Democracy VS Freedom of Expression

Vakho Komakhidze, journalist and director of the Studio “Reporter”, introduced the ombudsmen of foreign countries with the situation of TV Companies in Georgia. The report “Beacon of Democracy VS Freedom of Expression” states that there is not a single national TV Company that is free from influence of the ruling party.

“Liberal legislation could not support the development of Georgian media because the government chose the way to control media source through neglecting the legislation by secret agreements. In most cases, media sources were raided. Government of Georgia started to hunt the shares of partners of TV Companies. First victim of the authority was TV Company “Iberia.”

TV Company “202” was broadcasting with the license of “TV 33, Ltd”. After the Rose Revolution Shalva Ramishvili, director of the TV Company created political talk-show with high-rating and cartoon in series “Dardubala”. Soon afterwards, Shalva Ramishvili was charged for money-extortion. Broadcasting license of TV-33 was initially purchased by private person Hans-Verner Altenburg and then brother of deputy head of Financial Police of Georgia bought it. Finally, it was transformed into military TV Company that is completely under influence of the government.

TV Company “Rustavi 2” is under complete influence of the government. The following facts can demonstrate the influence: in 1996 Erasti Kitsmarishvili, Jarji Akimidze and Davit Dvali established broadcasting company “Rustavi 2”. After the Revolution, on June 11, 2004 Erasti Kitsmarishvili, director of the “Rustavi 2” appealed to the court to declare himself a bankrupt. Judge Mamuka Nozadze started proceedings on the appeal. Partners Jarji Akimidze and Davit Dvali could not make any decisions in the regime of bankruptcy so they lost influence on the company. Only bankrupt manager, who is elected by the council of creditors, could make decisions. Creditors were banks to whom the company had debt of 4, 1 million GEL and Georgian State represented by the Inspection of Major Taxpayers-to which Company owed 4, 6 million GEL. In this situation entire property was in danger. Partners Akimidze and Dvali gave up their shares in the TV Company. On June 17 their shares were sold to formal owner. After selling, main creditor, Inspection of Major Taxpayers stated that he was ready to restructure the debt in order not to completely bankrupt the enterprise. Everything happened so that they did not ask suggestions from banks. On June 25 bankruptcy of “Rustavi 2” was dropped. In fact, shares of two partners were sacrificed to unimplemented procedures; their shares made up control packet of the company. Soon, Erasti Kitsmarishvili also gave up his share and Kibar Khalvashi, friend of Irakli Okruashvili, former Defense Minister of Georgia, and MP Davit Bezhuashvili and brother of Minister of Foreign Affairs, became shareholders of the TV Company. After Irakli Okruashvili resigned from his position, Kibar Khalvashi was also forced to give up his share and new share-holders of the company are:
1. “Industrial Group of Georgia” that is established by the company “Chemexim International”, registered in Marshal Island; according to the declarations of the governmental officials this company belongs to Davit Bezhuashvili; the company holds 45 % of the TV Company.
2. “GeoMedia Group” holds 55 % of the Rustavi 2; this company is registered on Marshal Island as well. It is in fact the share that was given up by Kibar Khalvashi but the information about the owner of this company is still obscure.

TV Company “Objective” was broadcasting on Channel 25. Georgian National Commission of Communications (GNCC) compelled the owner of the company to give up 51 % of his share in favor of the neighbor of the chairperson of the National Commission. After Dimitri Kitoshvili, chairperson of the Commission, was arrested the frequency of the company was assigned to the TV Company “Alania”.

After the Rose Revolution, TV Company “Channel 9” ceased broadcasting. The founders of the company were Trade Union of Railway Department and Foundation of Rapid Reaction that later transformed into Cartu Group. The real owner of the company was businessmen Bidzina Ivanishvili who gave the equipment of the TV Company to the heroes of the Rose Revolution as a present after the revolution. The license of broadcasting was finally assigned to Irakli Chikovani who is founder of “Rustavi 2” and “Magi Style”. Broadcasting license of Channel 9 is not abolished it is just blocked.

TV Company “Pirveli Stereo”, who held the license of public programs as well, released only entertainment programs. Consequently, the license was deprived and it was legal decision; but the same law did not work regarding the Channel 9. In parallel to it, “Industrial Group of Georgia”, owned by Bezhuashvili, became the owner of the company.

TV Company “Evrika” also had its license abolished. The Company was founded by Otar Chkhartishvili, Naira Kveselava and Ana Shavkatsishvili in 1995. In 1999 Pridon Injia, former Minister of Communications, joined them as a partner. After Rose Revolution, 51 percent of the company was registered on Giorgi Gegeshidze who is founder of the advertising company “Magi Style.”

In August 2004, Teimuraz Shengelia, a businessman, became the founder of TV Company Evropa. He was planning to make a viable TV business. On September 10, 2004 GNCC abolished the license on Evropa based on the fact that the company stopped broadcasting for one day due to damaged masts. A criminal case was launched against the TV Company during the trials. As a consequence of this, the representatives of Special Operative Department and several men in civilian clothes raided Evropa and took the equipment of the company which was later discovered in the TV Company Alania. The founder of TV Company Evropa is declared wanted now. The administrative case against the company is still discussed at court.

The co-owners of TV Company Mze have changed rather frequently after the Rose Revolution: Levan Kubaneishvili, Ivane Chkhartishvili, Davit Bezhuashvili’s Saktsementi, Kibar Khalvashi. Finally, the assets of Mze were redistributed among Geomedia Group registered on Marshal Islands (55 %) and Georgian Industrial Group (45 % )- similar to Rustavi 2. Mze stopped broadcasting political programs and became an entertaining channel.

TV Company Imedi owned by well-known businessmen Bardi Patarkatsishvili became the main target during the dispersal on November 7, 2008 due to open criticism of the policy of Georgian Government by this channel. After the death of Badri Patarkatsishvili, his relative Joseph Keys took control over the company under suspicious circumstances. TV Imedi after the death of Bardi Patarkatsishvili has become much less critical towards the government and this is under the new owner’s instruction. This is when the legal owner of the company has not been identified up to present time,” said Komakhidze in his report.

At the end of the report the head of Studio “Reporter” concluded that media has become weapon for open political struggle in Georgia. “The media environment has become unhealthy and uncompetitive. There can be only political solution to this problem.

The government claims that there are Kavkasia and Maestro, two TV Companies which are not limited by the government and the opposition can express their opinion there freely. The best thing the present Georgian administration which was called “beacon of democracy”, has achieved on its fifth year of the governance in the media sphere is that it renewed license to independent TV Company Maestro under the pressure of international organizations, diplomatic corps and the Georgian society. It is noteworthy that Maestro broadcasts on decimeter frequency and covers only very small part of the country.   Maestro did not have right to broadcast for one year because of absence of license. Maestro and Kavkasia are open for free discussions and journalistic investigations but these TV Companies have limited technical resources and coverage areas.
Unfortunately, the distance between the Government of Georgia (GoG) – so called “beacon of democracy” and democratic standards has become so long that it (GoG) considers a small light of freedom of speech in TV media enough for the realization of democratic standards. In fact, the beacon of democracy has changed into a small candle,” claims Vakho Kobakhidze.

What Do the Regional Media Outlets Want and What Are They Protesting?

“The speakers name TV obituaries as one of the main sources of income for regional TV companies. They have not said anything about the new Election Code and the Law on Broadcasters that have eliminated the main sources of income and the chance for the development of regional TV Companies. “Limited circulation of truth” – this is what it is called. When you have a chance to complain out loud about the problems in media, in particular about the government granting free campaign advertising time to election candidates and make courtesy to political parties by this, when political units including the opposition cease this chance and when “other groups” do not say anything about it up to present time and you do not say anything about it.

Nothing was said in the reports about several incompetent people (representatives of NGOs) who told donor organizations that regional TV Companies do not need any financial support any more. It resulted in imposing restrictions on Georgian regional media. Nothing was said about the amount of money spent by donor organizations on regional TV and radio media run by ethnic minorities, about the criteria of the evaluation of achieved result. No one has highlighted that it was possible and it is still possible to redistribute all kinds of donor assistance among all regional media companies,” said the statement of the regional TV companies.

It is noteworthy that almost all regional TV companies receive money for ads from local budgets. The real aim of this is to hush media outlets from criticizing the government. Consequently, many regional TV companies praise the government. It must be also noted that the rights of the journalists of regional TV companies are not protected at all. The directors of the TV companies make unilateral decisions which news pieces should be broadcasted, what question a journalist should ask in an interview with local governmental official; the director chooses the guest of their programs as well. If a journalist resists a director (in most cases directors are the owners of the TV Company) s/he will be dismissed. Journalists cannot protect their rights in legal institutions because they never sign contracts with TV Companies.

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