After elections, TV stations reposition themselves and change ownership
Two weeks after the October 1 parliamentary election, changes in the political landscape are already reflected by structural changes in Georgia’s highly politicized television landscape. Recent changes in ownership of several TV stations indicate that the television landscape will remain highly polarized along partisan lines, with a number of channels being controlled by individuals close to political forces of both, the incoming government and the new opposition.
- TV9, owned by Ekaterine Khvedelidze (80%), the wife of the incoming Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, and Kakha Kobiashvili (20%), a relative of Ivanishvili, started terrestrial broadcasting on October 8 and can now be received through a normal antenna in Tbilisi. The station uses the technical infrastructure and frequency allocated to the company Stereo+. However, TV9 appears to lack the general analogue broadcasting license required for such broadcasting, meaning that it is currently on air illegally. Earlier this year, the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) fined TV9 Stereo+ for the terrestrial broadcasting of TV9, and has said it will investigate whether Stereo+ currently violates broadcasting rules. Georgian broadcasting regulations ban political parties and public officials from holding broadcasting licenses, but this ban does not extend to their immediate family members.
- Channel 25, a popular local TV station in Batumi, was sold by its founders on September 25, a few days before the elections, in a deal that only became widely known after the elections. The station’s new owners are Jemal Verdzadze (50%) and Levan Kardava (50%). On October 1, Kardava was elected majoritarian candidate of the Tsalenjikha district in Samegrelo, representing the United National Movement. He also owns the company Magana-2004, and is a consultant at SGI Sustainable Growth Investments. According to media reports, a person named Levan Kardava was appointed head of the Ministry of Interior’s Constitutional Security Department in July, but due to their failure to file a public asset declaration, TI Georgia has not been able to verify if this is the same person as the Channel 25 shareholder.
- On October 6 Imedi TV, one of the country’s two private national TV channels, suspended a number of popular and expensive entertainment shows, including the late-night format ‘Nanuka’s Show’. In a statement, the station announced it will change the nature of its main content, and will transform itself into a news channel.
- The businessman Dato Kezerashvili, a former head of the Revenue Service and a former defense minister, bought a 40% stake in Rustavi 2, the country’s largest private TV station by turnover. Kezerashvili and his close affiliates also control assets in the energy sector (including Gulf and a company providing services to Lukoil Georgia), the Georgian Lotteries, and the advertising sector. The shares were sold by Levan Karamanishvili, a businessman who founded the mobile phone operator Beeline/Mobitel Georgia and is involved in the internet provider Caucasus Online. In both companies, Levan Karamanishvili represents opaque shareholders who hide behind offshore shell companies. He continues to hold 50% of Rustavi 2. Kezerashvili bought Rustavi 2 for the symbolic price of USD 500,000 (the channel’s 2011 turnover alone was GEL 39 million/USD 25 million), and also paid USD 250,000 for 50% 40% in Mze. On October 10, Kezerashvili sold his shares in Rustavi 2 and Mze to George Karamanishvili for the same prices he had paid a few days earlier. Media reports have described George Karamanishvili as being a close friend of president Mikheil Saakashvili. The transactions leave a trail of orderly changes in ownership.
- This might become relevant, as former owners of Rustavi 2 and Mze are now asking to be given back shares in the outlet. Davit Dvali and Jarji Akimidze, who founded the station, say they were forced to relinquish control in 2004, while Kibar Khalashi, who ran the station until 2007 (when he had a disagreement with the government) also claims ownership in Rustavi 2.
- Vano Chkhartishvili, who served as a minister under Eduard Shevardnadze and left Georgia for London after the Rose Revolution, is asking to be granted control over Mze, which he claims was illegally seized from him. On October 9, media.ge reported that Chkhartishvili took ownership of Guria TV, a small local station. In late September, he had launched an online news outlet, mzera.tv.
- Real TV, a small Tbilisi-based station that has been airing propaganda supporting the outgoing government, has stopped airing newscasts, apparently due to financial problems. Media.ge reports that Real TV might be relaunched as a news channel.
- On October 5, Maestro TV and Global TV were informed that the lots of 38,000 and 100,000 satellite dishes, which the authorities had illegally seized from the two companies over vote buying and illegal party financing allegations, can now be accessed. The seizure of the assets was lifted by the Prosecutor’s office following a decision by the Tbilisi City Court on October 2, the day after the elections.
- The weekly Tabula magazine announced plans to expand into the television sector. On October 12, the GNCC approved the transfer of broadcasting licenses held by Sakartvelo, an entertainment channel with ties to the Ministry of Defense, to the Civic Education Foundation, publisher of Tabula. The magazine was founded by its editor, Tamar Chergoleishvili, wife of Giga Bokeria, the head of the National Security Council.
- On October 14, the outgoing Finance Minister announced a tax amnesty for broadcasters, which is likely to benefit mainly Imedi and Rustavi 2.
- The Georgian Public Broadcaster’s (GPB) Channel 1 has canceled two current affairs talk shows, and fired the editorial staff of these shows.
- On October 15, employees of Kanal PIK, the GPB’s Russian language news channel, aired a silent protest in their 22:00 newscast after the GPB had withheld parts of their salaries and had failed to pay the station’s bills. The station’s signal had been taken off the Hotbird satellite several days before. “Will the station be shut down, and why are our salaries not paid? Why was the budget approved by the Georgian Parliament spent before its due time? And where did the money that was supposed to last for a whole year go?” the newscasts’ anchors asked. Their reporters responded with silence. The next morning, PIK employees reported that last months’ salaries had finally been transferred.
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