After the Rose Revolution, relations between the Georgian government and local media have increasingly caused concern, because the government has attempted to tame the press by administrative measures under the plausible excuse of establishing the rule of law. Consequentially, some Georgian television stations and newspapers, which had gained a following with their relatively freewheeling reports, have significantly toned down their criticism of the government. Today, any media outlet that refuses to kowtow to the government faces increasing problems.
On July 28, a Tbilisi district court backed the government’s seizure of the property owned by the private TV company Kavkasia. The court ruled that Kavkasia owed GEL 34,000 (approximately $17,000) for using the state-owned TV transmission tower. Nino Jangirashvili, executive director of Kavkasia, said that seizure was illegal because the law allows the company to pay its access fees in installments spread throughout the year. David Akubardia, owner of Kavkasia, stated in a live broadcast on July 28 that if the court decree were implemented, his station would be forced to suspend broadcasting.
Akubardia also revealed that Kavkasia is under pressure from the government. In recent months the TV station has not been allowed to cover President Mikheil Saakashvili’s news conferences and overseas visits by Georgian officials, despite official accreditation. According to Akubardia, Kavkasia has fallen out favor with the authorities because it has broadcast opinions that the Saakashvili government finds unpalatable. During the Rose Revolution Kavkasia did not openly support Saakashvili and the revolutionary leaders and preferred to stay neutral.
A similar government campaign against another private television company, Iberia, several months ago paralyzed the station, which had criticized government policies, especially illegal arrests. Currently Iberia has stopped production on all information programs and political talk shows and broadcasts only a few hours each day.
Meanwhile, the government has treated a more loyal television station, Rustavi-2, far more benevolently. Rustavia-2 had accumulated debt totaling GEL 9.2 million, (about $4 million), including GEL 4.6 million owed to the government for its broadcasting license and other fees. Rustavi’s debts far exceeded the sum owed by Kavkasia. However, Rustavi, which had clearly backed the Rose Revolution by supporting the opposition leaders, had its debts forgiven. Since the Rose Revolution, Rustavi-2, which calls itself the “Television of Victorious People,” has frequently been criticized for transforming itself into a pro-government mouthpiece.
On June 15, a Georgian court suspended bankruptcy proceedings against Rustavi-2 after the Georgian Finance Ministry’s Tax Department agreed to reschedule the outstanding debt. When bankruptcy proceedings against Rustavi-2 opened on June 11, company owner Erosi Kitsmarishvili appealed to the government for help. Two days later, President Saakashvili pledged his support for Rustavi-2, saying “We will not run any TV company into bankruptcy, regardless of the amount they owe [to the state].” Kitsmarishvili, who also chairs the Georgian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is considered a close ally of President Saakashvili.
The printed media, which is often unfriendly toward leaders of the Rose Revolution, also faces problems. Keti Sesiashvili, editor-in-chief of Press Premier magazine, has claimed that people who describe themselves as “members of the National Movement” have launched a campaign of blackmail and intimidation against her. So far this year the magazine office has twice become vandalized and Sesiashvili her self has received at least one telephoned death threat in retaliation for her articles (Interpress, July 15)
A standoff continues between the authorities and the opposition newspaper, Georgian Times, which made its name by publishing sensitive materials about Saakashvili and his government. On July 14, financial police conducted a warrant-less search in the Georgian Times office and seized the newspaper’s financial records. Before the search, the newspaper had published compromising materials against Valeri Grigalashvili, Tbilisi’s chief prosecutor, and his brother, a member of parliament and one of the leaders of the ruling National Movement. The newspaper investigated the sources of Grigalashvili’s grand lifestyle and claimed he was hiding his real income by deliberately falsifying information in the financial disclosure statement that any Georgian official must submit. The newspaper recorded a browbeating phone call from Grigalashvili, in which he threatened to shut down the newspaper (Rustavi-2, July 14; Resonance, July 15).
The Georgian Times leadership claim that they have no financial improprieties and want law-enforcement bodies to conduct unbiased audit of their records. Owner Malkaz Gulashvili claims that Grigalashvili had ordered the raid. The opposition New Rightists political party stated that pressure on the Georgian Times has hindered the newspaper’s journalistic investigation and dissemination of “inconvenient” information about some senior representatives of Saakashvili’s government (Interpress, July 15; Mtavari Gazeti, Resonance, July 16).
Elene Tevdoradze, chair of the parliament’s commission for human rights and media issues, is the only representative of the ruling party who has commented on the issue. She said the government must change how it treats the media (Resonance, July 16). Lately pro-government civic groups either keep silent or dismiss accusations by saying that the opposition media just create controversy to attract public attention.
Increasingly, people close to the government and Saakashvili are gaining control over Georgia’s major media outlets. The Georgian newspaper Akhali Versia reported on July 19 that Georgian businessman Kibar Khalvashi has recently purchased 90% of the shares in Rustavi-2. Khalvashi himself confirmed the purchase in a brief interview with the newspaper. Akhali Versia also reported that Khalvashi has close links with the country’s leadership, particularly with Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili, a close confidant of Saakashvili (Resonance, July 26).
Another major private TV-Company Mze (Sun) is searching for a new patron. The current majority owner, Vano Chkhartishvili, was prominent under Shevardnadze and co-owner of the United Georgian Bank, but he has fallen out of favor with the new government and is trying to dodge arrest for financial abuses by ceding his assets to Saakashvili’s allies. David Bezhuashvili, a legislator and owner of Georgian Gas will become the new owner of Mze. His brother is Gela Bezhuashvili, secretary of Georgian National Security Council. David Bezhuashvili is also believed to have been a behind-the-scenes donor for Saakashvili’s political campaigns (Resonance, July 26).
Increasingly, journalism in Georgia resembles the Russian model of government-media relations, a trend that concerns many Georgians. The government restricts and shackles objectionable media outlets under the pretext of establishing financial order and fighting corruption. Resonance, in fact, labeled the ongoing process as the “Putinization of Georgian media.” Georgia has experience with official efforts to muzzle opposition opinions, but the problem was expected to wane — not increase — under the new government.