Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili launched a charm offensive in the western media on the anniversary of its war with Russia, claiming that Georgia was strengthening its democratic institutions. The President used the right words: a key element to his reform package was a pledge to install a public television broadcasting board with a membership balanced between government and opposition parties. But so far his actions have belied those words. The one complaint made time and again among the diverse civil society organisations working in the Georgian capital is that the present government has placed television media firmly under its own control.
International actors have also been vocal in condemning the president's manipulation of the media: in June a fact-finding mission to Georgia by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists found that "the national stations Rustavi 2, Mze and Imedi TV provided virtually no critical coverage of Saakashvili's administration", while Baia Romelashvili, the Georgian Ombudsman's media analyst, told me that in terms of the opposition's access to airtime, things had gone downhill since the dark days of Eduard Shevardnadze.
As for Saakashvili's recent vow to prevent the "persecution and physical insulting of journalists", that prompted derision among the many journalists in Tbilisi who have been beaten or made jobless under his presidency.
The country's television stations have been targeted by successive governments, but Saakashvili's persecution of independent broadcasters has been pursued with the energy that has characterised his government's economic and institutional reforms.
When Shevardnadze was finally ousted from power in November 2003, it was the private broadcaster Rustavi 2 which received much of the credit for revealing the corruption that was pervasive in his regime. Shevardnadze's agents had stormed the station in October 2001, but Rustavi journalists locked themselves in the building and broadcast the events live, stirring public support and forcing the government to back down.
On gaining power in January 2004, Saakashvili moved swiftly to limit the independent media. The owner of Rustavi 2, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, quickly sold the channel to a businessman with links to the Defence Ministry, later claiming that the transaction masked an effective seizure of the channel by the authorities.
The profile of the channel steadily changed, and a new channel, Imedi (Hope) TV, became the groundbreaking broadcaster. Funded by Badri Patarkatsishvili, a tycoon close to Boris Berezovsky, Imedi TV was the first channel to investigate the murder of Sandro Girgvliani which implicated figures in Saakashvili's Interior Ministry.
On 25 September 2007, Imedi TV broadcast allegations by the former interior minister, Irakli Okruashvili, that President Saakashvili had ordered the assassinations of opponents, including Imedi TV's owner, the tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili. Okruashvili was arrested and his allegations were withdrawn under interrogation, but not before street demonstrations against the government had erupted.
The demonstrations continued and Saakashvili declared a state of emergency on 7 November. That evening armed police broke into Imedi TV's offices, ransacking equipment and arresting journalists at gunpoint, allegedly declaring "You are Badri's dogs, doing the work of the Russians!"
Imedi TV's anchor Giorgi Targamadze was speaking live on air during the break-in, and the cameramen continued filming as the police rampaged through the building.
Targamadze's final broadcast spoke directly to the international community: " With us in the building is the head of Imedi, Louis Robertson, who has been captured by the police forces. There is a search proceeding on the third floor, and on the first floor all employees are lying with their faces down. I don't know what is going on outside, I don't know what is happening in the control room, is anybody hearing me? We are in a very difficult situation, we were not warned that the police were coming into the building. By closing the channel the government is violating the constitution. This means that this is a dictatorial regime. I address all organisations and embassies to protect the citizens. Here they are, coming into the studio. I want to say thank you. I can hear shouts in the control room; I hope that our employees won't be injured. Here are our ‘guests'."
Imedi was taken off air. It would not return until after the snap presidential elections the following year which Saakashvili went on to win, in the absence of any independent nationwide television network to allow a fair amount of airtime to opposition candidates. The opposition was more successful within the capital where local independent television channels persisted. But the president regained office through the votes of the broader country.
Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation had been managing Imedi TV at the time. He was outraged. Murdoch told the Associated Press that he had instructed Imedi to be rigorously neutral: "We have monitored to make sure that every news broadcast is absolutely fair and balanced and down the middle...but apparently the authorities weren't watching. We invited them to come on the air and put their case. Instead two hundred goons turned up and smashed the place up, and the people."
News Corporation was challenged by the government to prove its ownership of the channel, and Badri Patarkatsishvili fled to the United Kingdom where he died in February last year at his home in Surrey. A distant cousin of Badri, Ioseb Kakiashvili (also known as Joseph Kay), stepped forwards to claim that the ownership of Imedi TV had been left to him, despite the protestations of Badri's wife. She successfully overturned his claims in a New York court but Kakiashvili, a close friend of the alleged FSB/KGB assassin Andrei Lugovoi, was victorious in the parallel court case in Tbilisi.
Kakiashvili quickly sacked the news editor of Radio Imedi, Nonna Kandiashvili, for being too ‘negative' towards the government, and later sold the Imedi media holding to Rakeen, an Arabian property development company. Rakeen translates from the Arabic as "trustworthy support", and the press secretary of the Georgian Ministry of Defence has since been appointed as head of Imedi's social-political broadcasting department.
The television presenter who held his post during the break-in, Giorgi Targamadze, has since set up the Christian Democratic Movement, a political party that now sits in parliament in opposition to Saakashvili. The Christian Democrats published a seven-point plan to create dialogue between the government and the opposition. Four of the seven proposals related to the media, including the return of Imedi to its "legal owners", and measures to encourage greater pluralism and impartiality in the national media.
"The problem with Georgian broadcasting," explained Giorgi Akhvlediani, one of Targamadze's former co-presenters, now chairman of the party's parliamentary faction. "is that we now have a plurality of views, but it is either very pro-government, or very anti-government, with nothing in between." The opposition have also been blamed for intimidating journalists, with protestors having erected a "wall of shame" adorned with photographs of journalists from the public broadcaster who have refused to resign from the organisation.
While the Christian Democrats have used their position in parliament to support the emergence of pro-opposition Maestro TV, what matters more to Akhvlediani is the work of the state broadcaster, which he claims has the capacity to set the tone of professionalism and objectivity for Georgian media. A balance on the controlling board of the public broadcaster between members of the rival parties has been imposed before and failed to ensure an accepted level of impartiality. Akhvlediani argues that rather than seeing political objectivity as the consensus between opposing parties, it should be the responsibility of a new controlling board staffed by journalists rather than politicians.
This is the system adopted by Maestro TV, which recently won a licence to broadcast via satellite. The station has recently appointed a board of trustees composed of experienced journalists, and has also rejected offers of funding from political groups. The channel operates under extreme pressure, its property having been attacked with a grenade and its' office receiving threatening calls "on a daily basis", but its founder Mamuka Glonti is determined that Maestro performs a vital function in Georgia. He describes the aim of the channel as being "to resist the flow of disinformation through the state channels. Twenty five per cent of Tbilisi's population believes that we won the war, being convinced by Rustavi 2 and Imedi TV."
Maestro is largely staffed by students and volunteers, and its founder Glonti has declared that the channel will "appeal to the population for help, as well as local businessmen and the Georgian ones residing abroad" in order to pay the fees for gaining satellite access. This may cost as much as 18,000 dollars monthly. In the face of government hostility and with a poorly-developed advertising market, Maestro faces a challenge to survive as a nation-wide broadcaster. At present it still operates solely via cable to a limited potential audience.
However, the organisation is determined that Maestro will not follow the path of Rustavi 2 and Imedi TV, and will maintain its independence. The degree to which Maestro's journalists are allowed to pursue their work unharassed by the government will be a key measure with which to judge Saakashvili's promise to strengthen democracy, as he seeks to ensure continued western support for his government.