On January 4, the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) inaugurated its first Russian language television channel: Pervyi Kavkazsky (First Caucasus) or 1-K. It initially operated as a cable television channel available within Georgia with simultaneous live broadcasting on the internet to reach a wider online audience. On January 15, First Caucasus further widened its range of coverage by becoming available on the French-operated satellite provider Eutelsat, reaching a broader Russian speaking audience in the Russian Federation and across almost the entire post-Soviet space. On February 1, Eutelsat discontinued transmitting the channel, which immediately invoked suspicions that the Russian authorities were implicated in the decision.
Television channels in the Russian Federation are almost exclusively owned or at least heavily controlled by the state and, furthermore, they enjoy a near-monopoly on broadcasting in the Russian language throughout the entire post-Soviet space and beyond. Thus, it is not only in the North Caucasus that the Kremlin feared the Georgian channel might challenge its informational monopoly, but among the entire Russian-speaking population across Eurasia.
Oleg Panfilov, the Head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations is a leading journalist and host on First Caucasus. An ethnic Russian, he was born in Tajikistan and spent much of his career in various parts of Central Asia, working on human rights and other humanitarian issues. Panfilov, highly respected both in Russia and Central Asia, has recently settled in Tbilisi, after spending several years in Moscow. Another internationally acclaimed individual working for First Caucasus, Alla Dudayeva, an ethnic Russian and widow of the late Chechen President Jokhar Dudayev, is also well-respected in the North Caucasus.
State-owned Russian media reacted critically to the appearance of First Caucasus and became almost hysterical after the Georgian channel started its satellite broadcasts. The Russian newspaper Kommersant immediately highlighted the fact that “First Caucasus transmits using a French satellite, which had been launched into orbit by the Russian rocket-carrier Proton from the space launch facility at Baikonur” (Kommersant, January 18). It also cited Giorgi Chanturia, the Head of GPB, as claiming that “the goal of First Caucasus is to inform the Russian public about Georgia and freely discuss developments in the North Caucasus…We would like to talk about things which are left out by other Russian-language TV channels.”
Pro-Russian forces in the Georgian opposition, including the former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli’s Movement for a Just Georgia, constantly voiced criticism against establishing First Caucasus. “President Mikheil Saakashvili needs this channel to harm Russia and its people,” said Petre Mamradze, Noghaideli’s associate. Giorgi Khaindrava, another pro-Russian figure in the Georgian opposition, was even more acrimonious: “Since this channel is viewed in Moscow as supportive of separatism in the North Caucasus, [Russian Prime Minister] Putin might order the bombing of central Tbilisi where the GPB is located” (Kommersant, Regnum, January 18).
In an interview on Georgia’s First TV Channel, GPB’s Levan Gakheladze said: “Eutelsat requested that the GPB should describe the content of the programs aired by First Caucasus.” He accused the French satellite provider of being “a tool of Russian censorship” (Georgia’s First TV Channel, February 2).
On February 2, the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s spokesperson described the action against First Caucasus as “a very dangerous precedent of international political censorship” and called for the resumption of its broadcasting on the satellite “owned by the country [France], respected worldwide as a home of democracy (The Georgian President’s official website, February 2).
In an interview with the author, Oleg Panfilov mentioned several reasons why First Caucasus is viewed as “dangerous” by the Kremlin. In his opinion, unlike the Kremlin’s own propaganda machinery, the Russian language First Caucasus is aimed at disseminating balanced and objective information concerning Georgia, Russia and its regions, as well as other countries in the former Soviet Union. “The channel conveys a positive message,” he said, with its emphasis on historical, cultural and ethnic issues, human rights and other humanitarian topics. Panfilov also stressed the importance of spreading information about Georgia in Ukraine and in the Central Asian countries where the Kremlin-owned Russian TV channels have traditionally held a heavy influence over the Russian-speaking public. “During the Russian aggression against Georgia in August 2008, ordinary people in various parts of the post-Soviet space could not receive objective information in the Russian language, while the Kremlin enjoyed an information monopoly,” the First Caucasus journalist said. It is also worth recalling that during the war, the entire Georgian cyberspace was under attack most likely by Russian internet hackers, resulting in an almost complete shutdown of the Georgian government and private websites.
In Panfilov’s view, “propaganda is the single most important tool” for the current Russian leadership to influence both domestic and world opinion,” and “there is no doubt that the appearance of the alternative TV channel is seen in Moscow as a moral danger that has to be avoided at all costs.” The journalist argues that in addition to political pressure that the Russian authorities exerted on the French-owned Eutelsat, there was an “important commercial intimidation,” since, he alleges, Gazprom threatened the French satellite provider “to withdraw its 28 or so channels from Eutelsat if First Caucasus continued broadcasting.”
Panfilov who was “forced” to leave Moscow for his political views, sees Georgia as a “viable alternative” in the largely authoritarian post-Soviet space where the Kremlin almost exclusively shapes political trends. Georgia’s liberal political and economic system, in Panfilov’s opinion, could become an information target for the Russian leadership. “I believe that First Caucasus has to have a type of mission Radio Liberty pursued in its first decades, in 1950’s and 1960’s.”
It remains to be seen if First Caucasus will regain its satellite broadcasting rights. GPB has already launched a lawsuit against the French company in a Paris court. Analysts, such as Oleg Panfilov, consider that the French court’s verdict will show whether justice, equality and free speech still matter in international relations or whether “other considerations” have an overriding power.