Imedi Television’s reopening on December 12 (see EDM, December 13) leaves key questions about the channel’s ownership and management unanswered. The issue of responsibility for possible violations of the law remains equally blurred. Imedi TV had been forced temporarily off the air by the authorities on November 7 for inciting public disorders (see EDM, November 12, 13, 30). Since then, the presidential election campaign has gathered steam and Imedi seems set to resume its role as a political actor.
The Georgian government, in close consultation with U.S. and EU envoys Matt Bryza and Peter Semneby, had worked out three conditions for reopening Imedi TV. Those conditions included: 1) disclosure of Imedi’s actual ownership and financing; 2) formation of an advisory board or council to monitor television channels’ coverage of political events, particularly during the presidential election; and 3) voluntary adherence to a mutually agreed set of professional standards and ethics in that regard.
This arrangement had been worked out prior to Polish journalistic celebrity Adam Michnik’s November 29-December 1 descent on Tbilisi in a mediating exercise. However, only the second of those conditions is in place now. Meanwhile, Imedi TV does not meet the legal requirements regarding disclosure of ownership and financing.
Billionaire tycoon and presidential candidate Badri Patarkatsishvili, who has publicly vowed to overthrow Georgia’s authorities, apparently continues to own 100% of Imedi Television’s shares. His earlier announcements about selling 51% of the shares to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (49% in 2006 and another 2% in October 2007) are not supported by any known legal or financial document.
News Corp. has neither confirmed nor denied Patarkatsishvili’s allegations about those transactions. It simply refuses to disclose the actual ownership situation. However, News Corp’s Tbilisi representative, Lewis Robertson, most recently implied to local media that Patarkatsishvili remains the full owner of Imedi TV and is unwilling to sell the channel’s ownership to News Corp. (Georgia Today, December 7). For its part, the Georgian government favors an official takeover of Imedi by News Corp. as a business, rather than political, enterprise; and has made this clear in talks with top-level News Corp. executives.
Imedi TV is highly popular as a political channel but notoriously loss-making as a business, given Georgia’s small advertising market. According to the Prosecutor-General’s post-November 7 investigation, Imedi had lost approximately $20 million in the last three years. Patarkatsishvili had to subsidize the channel. By all appearances, his goal in doing so was to build political leverage against the government.
The issue of managerial responsibility for program content remains equally unresolved, with potentially risky consequences if Imedi relapses into inflammatory reporting on political events.
Patarkatsishvili transferred the channel’s operating rights fully to News Corp. on October 31 for a 12-month period. Apparently he sought cover behind this global media organization, ahead of the disorders that he helped orchestrate on November 2-7 through his television channel. Presumably, News Corp. did not anticipate this course of events and the risk of an explosive climax when it took over the operating rights to Imedi.
With only one representative in Tbilisi (the business manager Robertson), News Corp. was physically and linguistically unable to control Imedi’s program content, which remained in the hands of Patarkatsishvili’s local appointees. In the event, News Corp. was caught up in a conflict situation not of its making, and bearing responsibility for programming without effective control. This situation led directly to a political crisis and the Prosecutor General’s investigation of the channel and its owner, suspected of conspiracy to overthrow the legal authorities through instigation to violence.
On December 13 a media watchdog group was established in Tbilisi to monitor broadcast media’s adherence to professional and ethical standards. To be nominally chaired by Michnik in absentia, the group includes emblematic civil society and academic figures such as Alexander Rondeli, Ghia Nodia, and Davit Paichadze, along with four other members. The group has set three top priorities in monitoring the television channel’s political programming: no appeals to violence, no hate speech, and no slander. Ownership issues are defined as a secondary priority (Civil Georgia, December 13).
The group’s recommendations shall not be legally binding. Apparently it relies on moral suasion, with no implementing mechanism other than reporting the transgressions once a week in a special, 90-minute slot on Georgian Public Television (the channel with the lowest rating among the four channels with country-wide coverage).
A mutually agreed set of professional standards has yet to be adopted. One such document was proposed on November 27 by the Media Council, a group that was formed two years ago by some of the most respected journalists and NGO leaders in Georgia (two of them also members of the watchdog group just created). However, some partisan journalists feel uncomfortable with that document’s emphasis on non-partisanship in the coverage of political events.
The watchdog group’s mandate seems time-limited to two months, but may well have to be prolonged or renewed for the parliamentary elections, the timing of which will be determined by a plebiscite to be held concurrently with the January 5 presidential election.
(Civil Georgia, Messenger, Georgia Today, Prime-News, December 3-13; EDM, November 12, 13, 30; December 14)