Georgia’s pro-opposition Imedi Television resumed broadcasting its political programs on Wednesday, December 12. The authorities had temporarily closed Imedi TV on November 7 as part of a state of emergency. The channel had instigated unlawful actions against state authorities during the November 2-7 opposition rallies through inflammatory broadcasts.
Often misperceived outside Georgia as independent television outlet, Imedi TV is a fully owned channel of Badri Patarkatsishvili in his triple role: Georgia’s wealthiest businessman, presidential candidate, and sponsor of an alliance of radical opposition groups pressing for regime change. Imedi’s reopening leaves this multiple conflict-of-interest situation unresolved and potentially destabilizing to Georgia.
Imedi TV will influence not only the presidential election campaign leading up to the January 5 balloting, but also its aftermath. Anticipating that a majority of voters will reelect Mikheil Saakashvili as president, opposition groups are already claiming that the election will be rigged, and they are openly calling for protests in downtown Tbilisi to force regime change the next day, January 6.
The channel’s director for political programs, Giorgi Targamadze, welcomed the reopening of Imedi TV as a “democratic step” by the authorities, but in the same statement he charged that Saakashvili and the Georgian government have “since 2003 carried out a process of Putinization … [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s rule has been established in Georgia” (Radio Imedi, December 8).
Such rhetoric seems to presage a continuing heavy bias in the channel’s coverage of political events. Targamadze formerly headed the Tbilisi parliamentary group of the party of Aslan Abashidze, the pro-Moscow local dictator of Ajaria until 2004. He also headed Abashidze’s television channel there.
Since November five Imedi journalists, including star talk show hosts Inga Grigolia and Eka Khoperia, have left Imedi for other media outlets, with Grigolia explaining that she had decided to leave Imedi after Patarkatsishvili had unveiled his political agenda.
Technically, on December 3 Georgia’s Acting President Nino Burjanadze (chair of parliament and interim head of state during Saakashvili’s presidential candidacy) initiated the procedure for reopening Imedi TV, “despite the fact that the channel is owned and controlled by a presidential candidate [Patarkatsishvili]” (Civil Georgia, December 4). The state asked the Prosecutor General’s Office to consider lifting the measures taken as part of the investigation into Imedi’s role in encouraging unlawful actions on November 2-7. In turn, the Prosecutor General asked the National Communications Commission to cancel the three-month suspension of Imedi’s broadcasting license and the Tbilisi City Court to lift the sequester on Imedi’s property. The license and the property were returned on December 5 and 6, respectively.
Full resumption of broadcasting has taken another week to prepare, due to equipment damage inflicted when security police seized the building on November 7. State authorities have asked Imedi management to provide a list of damaged or lost equipment for financial compensation.
According to Burjanadze and other officials, concerns persist that Imedi TV could again encourage unrest, but the risk appears to have decreased substantially during recent weeks.
Burjanadze, National Security Council Secretary Kakha Lomaia, and other officials have explained in dialogues with Georgian journalists the dilemma that the state leadership faced on November 7 in declaring a state of emergency and taking Imedi TV off the air.
“The form of closing Imedi was an unpleasant one, but was the only possible way to stop the calls for overthrowing the legal authorities,” Lomaia recounted (Civil Georgia, December 1). With the channel serving in effect as a megaphone for mobilization to unlawful actions, “We were facing an enormous danger on November 7. There was a threat of returning to the [anarchic] 1990s. The government could not afford taking its time on a decision, every minute counted,” Burjanadze recalls (Kviris Palitra, December 6).
The resort to a state of emergency was a collective decision by the state leadership and followed legal procedures. However, the police seizure of Imedi’s premises was apparently accompanied by excessive use of force and the disabling of some equipment.
Owned by Patarkatsishvili but managed at least pro forma by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, the Imedi channel will almost certainly vie with the Rustavi-2 channel for broadcasting debates among presidential candidates between now and January.
Candidates Levan Gachechiladze of the nine-party opposition coalition, Davit Gamkrelidze of the New Right, and Shalva Natelashvili of the Labor Party have all expressed willingness to debate with Saakashvili one-on-one, but not in group formats. These candidates evidently hope that debating only with Saakashvili would enhance their status in public perceptions, lifting them above the half-dozen minor or unknown candidates. Patarkatsishvili left Georgia on November 3 but remains a presidential candidate and as such enjoys legal immunity. For his part, Saakashvili is willing to participate in any “issue-based debates” with the other candidates.
Georgia’s Public Television channel has already launched group-format debates among presidential contenders. These debates are scheduled for prime time on Fridays and Sundays from December 7 onward.
(Civil Georgia, Messenger, Georgia Today, Prime-News, December 3-12; see EDM, November 12, 13, 30)