Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 222

Unanswered questions persist and are even multiplying about the relationship between Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and Imedi Television, the vehicle of Georgian tycoon and presidential contender Badri Patarkatsishvili. Co-owned by News Corp. and Patarkatsishvili, but controlled de facto by Patarkatsishvili-appointed program managers, Imedi TV agitated for regime change through unconstitutional means during the November 2-7 rallies in Tbilisi and was suspended by the government pending clarification of its status.

The Georgian government has invited News Corp. to discuss ways of reopening Imedi TV as an independent, privately owned channel. Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze and other officials have held talks with News Corp. in recent days. The government wants Imedi to reopen under the auspices of a responsible party, which could well be News Corp. itself, so as to ensure that the channel is not again used for instigating anti-constitutional actions. The existing financial and managerial arrangements are ambiguous and non-transparent.

According to statements by Patarkatsishvili and others, from August 2006 onward, Patarkatsishvili sold a 49% stake in Imedi TV to News Corp. at that point in time and another 2% on October 31 The veracity of these statements and legality of these moves went unquestioned all along. However, there seems to be no document on record with Georgian authorities and no public statement on record by News Corp. that would register those sale-and-purchase agreements or spell out their terms. Under the Georgian Law on Broadcasting, ownership changes must be registered with Georgia’s National Communications Commission within 10 days by the contracting parties.

The acquisition price, if any, of those stakes is not known either. Georgian media insiders are told by some of their Imedi colleagues that Patarkatsishvili continued financing the channel’s operations in full and paying the personnel’s salaries ever since the purported equity acquisitions by News Corp. Moreover, key Imedi program managers continued to be listed all along as public-relations employees of Patarkatsishvili’s Standard Bank. There is no clarity either about News Corp. investments, or investment commitments, as part of its reported equity purchases into Imedi TV.

Again according to the Patarkatsishvili version, on October 31 News Corp. took over the operating rights of Patarkatsishvili’s remaining 49% stake in Imedi TV. However, the purported agreement on the transfer of those rights is a document signed only by Patarkatsishvili’s representatives, not by News Corp’s. The October 31 document was only registered legally on November 13, six days after the channel’s suspension. Thus, Imedi TV’s operational control seems to have lacked a legal basis during the November 2-November 7 street rallies, for which the channel agitated at times.

Under the October 31 arrangement, News Corp. would only receive $3,500 per month in compensation for managing Imedi TV. And only one News Corp. representative, Lewis Robertson, has been permanently stationed in Tbilisi for the past 12 months. Thus, News Corp. seemed to lack any real intent to exercise operational control of Imedi TV, lacking the on-site presence for doing so. Patarkatsishvili’s handover of control does not look genuine under such circumstances. Rather, it seems intended to affix a News Corp. cover to Patarkatsishvili’s political misuse of Imedi TV during the final phase of his regime-change campaign.

On November 28, Prime Minister Gurgenidze proposed during a news conference that News Corp. should raise its ownership stake in Imedi TV to 100% and exercise operational control. The government is setting three conditions for such an arrangement: financial transparency, clarity about operational authority, and adherence to professional and ethical standards of journalism. In an initial reaction, News Corp. turned down the ownership proposal without stating its reasons and declined to provide data on its actual stake in Imedi TV. However, the Georgian government awaits a more elaborate News Corp. reply in the coming days, in time for Imedi to reopen in connection with the presidential election campaign

The Georgian government has invited Adam Michnik to mediate the process of reopening Imedi TV and participate in efforts to ensure professional coverage of the electoral campaign by Georgian media generally. A leader in Poland’s Solidarity movement during the 1980s and chief editor of the highly respected Gazeta Wyborcza then and now, Michnik has arrived in Tbilisi and is conducting meetings with all the parties involved.

Linking the reopening of Imedi TV with the adoption of professional standards and self-regulating procedures — by that channel and by Georgian media generally — is a view gaining ground rapidly. The U.S. and EU envoys, Matt Bryza and Peter Semneby, have endorsed such an approach and other international authorities are following suit. The Georgian government proposes the creation of a media ethical practices board, to consist of representatives of the media themselves, non-governmental organizations, and international watchdog groups. For its part, the Georgian Media Council of Georgia — composed of some of the most distinguished Georgian journalists and Western-oriented NGOs — has adopted a set of professional guidelines for voluntary adoption by journalists and media outlets, to be adhered to during the presidential campaign and in its aftermath.

The authors of these proposals understand that to reopen Imedi Television in the formula that operated up to November 7 would be tantamount to playing with fire and perhaps igniting one in a vulnerable democracy, to the benefit of that democracy’s now-resurgent adversaries.

(Civil Georgia, Messenger, November 25-29; see EDM, November 12, 13, 21)