The state of emergency was lifted in Georgia on November 16, but the pro-opposition Imedi Television remains sealed off by the authorities, its broadcasts temporarily suspended, under decisions by the Tbilisi city court and the National Communications Commission. The authorities took Imedi TV off the air on November 7 when declaring the state of emergency, after the channel had broadcast the opposition parties’ inflammatory calls for overturning the constitution and the government (see EDM, November 12, 13).
The status of Imedi TV is Georgia’s most contentious internal political issue at the moment. The opposition and some foreign observers maintain that the integrity of the January 5 pre-term presidential election will hinge on Imedi TV’s return on the air.
Leaders of opposition parties (at least 12 of them, in varying relations of cooperation and mutual rivalry) demand the reopening of Imedi TV before the start of the presidential election campaign. Some of these leaders demand Imedi’s reopening as a precondition to entering into any dialogue with the parliament’s leadership and the government.
For their part, the authorities cite the misuse of Imedi TV for seditious purposes by its main owner-operator, Badri Patarkatsishvili, who left Georgia on November 3. Patarkatsishvili vowed to spend “even the last penny” of his billion-dollar assets — which include Imedi TV — to overthrow the “fascist regime” in Georgia.
Patarkatsishvili is involved in a multiple conflict-of-interest situation: He is Georgia’s wealthiest businessman, himself an opposition politician with a program (predating the November events) to overturn the constitution, the self-declared bankroller of the opposition parties’ alliance, owner of Imedi Television, and personally caught up in murky relations with Russia.
As owner of Imedi, Patarkatsishvili’s conflict-of-interest situation inevitably affected the integrity of the TV channel’s operations during the recent political confrontation. Patarkatsishvili handed over a 49% stake in Imedi TV to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in 2006 and a further 2% in October 2007, but he retained operational control of Imedi through his Georgian appointees during the events leading up to November 7.
The ongoing debate in Tbilisi is not about whether Imedi TV should reopen, but rather about how to bring it back on air. Considering the inflammatory content of some Imedi broadcasts during the November 2-November 7 street rallies, and given its close links with Patarkatsishvili, a search is underway by Georgian authorities, NGO representatives, and some Western envoys for a solution that would restore the integrity and professional responsibility of Imedi’s political reporting.
Current proposals focus on the possible establishment of an independent advisory board to ensure adherence to professional standards — a suggestion first made public on November 13 in Washington (EDM, Georgian Public TV, November 13) and taken up in Tbilisi. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza and the European Union’s Special Representative for the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby — both of whom were on mission in Georgia during the state of emergency and afterward — have made proposals along the same lines.
On November 14 Bryza also suggested the creation of an “independent monitoring group to oversee the professional standards of television channels.” Calling for resumption of television broadcasting, Bryza offered to support cooperation among Georgia’s authorities, the managements of Imedi and Rustavi-2 televisions, and opposition representatives “to ensure that the TV channels are objective and professional” (Kavkas-Press, November 15).
In a similar vein, on November 16 Semneby urged both the resumption of Imedi TV’s broadcasts and setting up a “monitoring group” of media professionals and respected public figures, “who can offer advice and provide consultations.” Citing the European truism that media freedom implies also responsibility, Semneby noted its relevance particularly to resolving the Imedi TV issue (media.ge, November 16).
Parliament Chair Nino Burjanadze has initiated consultations with European parliamentarians and journalists to develop a model that would ensure a political nonpartisanship stance by Imedi and other Georgian television stations (Civil Georgia, November 20). Assistance in this regard from the Council of Europe is available to requesting countries. Meanwhile, the government has invited the OSCE to delegate the maximum possible number of election observers to Georgia. The fairness of the presidential election campaign will largely be linked to the fairness of television coverage.
The case of Imedi is a specific, complicated case of defending media freedom. Along with freedom of expression, it involves defending media from being instrumentalized by oligarch owners and political groups involved in anti-constitutional actions. Creating an independent board of competent advisers and adopting a set of professional guidelines — such as, for example, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty staff have had for many years — can protect media integrity and professionalism from the corrosive influence of oligarchic interests and partisan political agendas.