Entities Associated with Government and Opposition Taking Over TV stations
In recent days, the Georgian television sector has become even more politically polarized -- judging by changes in ownership and management of two channels.
The Russian-language news satellite channel of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, Kanal PIK, is now managed by Alania LLC, which has been running the government-affiliated channel Region TV, formerly known as Alania TV. Region TV is currently re-broadcasting Kanal PIK’s signal.
At the same time, Ekaterine Khvedelidze, the wife of billionaire opposition politician Bidzina Ivanishvili, took control over Igrika, a station that has received a satellite broadcasting license from the Georgian communications regulator in December 2011 and is expected to go on air this spring.
Television plays a key role in setting political debates and shaping public perception. For 88% of Georgians, television is the most important source of information on current affairs, a 2011 CRRC survey found. Therefore, it is very important that Georgians have access to fair and impartial news, reporting and analysis on TV -- especially ahead of the Parliamentary elections in fall.
In mid-January, the Russian-language broadcaster Region TV was given the right to manage Kanal PIK for one year. PIK had launched its news program in 2011 and has been funded from a government reserve fund. PIK was set up and run for one year by the company K-1, founded by Ekaterine Kotrikadze – a reporter of Echo Moscow in Tbilisi, a Russian opposition radio station – and the British journalist Robert Parsons, who has left PIK to work for France 24. Mr. Parsons decision to leave channel PIK raised concerns whether PIK would be able to defend its editorial independence. Region TV’s operator, Alania LLC was the only bidder to run PIK and will receive GEL 14 million to the year 2012 to do so.
Region TV and its predecessor Alania have a legacy of being a tool of politics. Alania TV was launched in 2005. Based in Tbilisi, the station was targeting people in South Ossetia with its Russian language news broadcasts. Gia Chanturia, who today is the General Director of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, worked at Alania for several years. Observers described Alania TV as “pro-Tbilisi” and as a “pet project” of the Georgian government, that was closely affiliated with the authorities. Until 2008, the station was broadcasting without a license, its ownership and finances remained “shrouded in mystery”, as an IREX report put it 2009. When Kanal PIK’s unsuccessful predecessor, the First Caucasian Channel, was launched in early 2010, Alania TV was re-branded as Region TV.
PIK is now managed by Alania LLC whose director Aleksandre Farulava has worked for a number of TV channels, including Mze and PIK. His wife, Nino Shubladze, manages Rustavi 2’s news room. Alania LLC is currently officially owned by Mamuka Tatoshvili (55%), Giorgi Aghdgomeladze (15%), Tamaz Gudadze (15%) and Nikoloz Tabidze (15%), according to ownership documents filed with the Georgian National Communications Commission. Tatoshvili, a former director of Alania/Region TV, is also the owner of GMC, a new cable broadcaster that received a license from the regulator on December 23, 2011.
In the second half of January, the license holder Igrika (which is not on the air yet), was taken over by Accept LLC, a company owned by Ivanishvili’s wife, Ekaterine Khvedelidze (80% of shares). Khvedelidze is currently seeking to have her Georgian citizenship restored -- which she had been stripped of after her husband anouncement's of going into politics -- and has announced that she might run in this year’s Parliamentary elections. The remaining 20% are held by Kakha Kobiashvili, who manages several companies owned by Ivanishvili, including Georgian Holding and Holding Twenty First. In 2011, these companies were reported to have transferred several million Lari to opposition parties.
Igrika was founded by Bacho Kikabidze, the current director of Maestro TV. Igrika applied to the GNCC for a broadcasting license several years ago. In September 2011, Igrika received the permission from the regulator to broadcast via cable, and in December it also received a satellite transmission permission. In Decemer 2011, however, Kikabidze decided to temporarily hand over the management of Igrika to Accept LLC until the end of 2013. A few days later, he sold all shares to Accept for GEL 20,000, according to media.ge. A spokesperson of Ivanishvili stated that the journalists working for the new television will enjoy editorial independence.
Nonetheless, there is a high risk that in what is expected to be a very heated electoral campaign, any media outlet that enjoys political backing will hardly be able to remain a neutral observer. Reporters working for these outlets are likely to end up self-censoring their work or be subject to editorial pressure and interference from their editors.
Media outlets must not be misused by governments or any political player as propaganda machines. The recent changes in ownership and management are reason for concern that we might see an ever more partisan TV landscape in Georgia.
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