The government of Georgia and media related to opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili have traded accusations, generating a tense climate ahead of parliamentary elections in October.
On a visit to Brussels, Georgian Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze blamed the government's main opponent, Ivanishvili, for using his enormous fortune to buy media and “bribe” voters by providing satellite dishes free of charge.
Ivanishvili, whose fortune is estimated at $5.5 billion (€4 billion) by Forbes magazine, last year declared his intention to enter politics and win the elections, and repair ties with Russia that were damaged by the 2008 conflict (see background).
He has in the meantime established a political alliance, called Georgian Dream, seen as the major challenger to the ruling United National Movement.
Ivanishvili’s media power is built around the TV9 television channel, which was developed by US professionals as a sort of ‘Georgia CNN’. TV9 competes with the three national broadcasters that have become a virtual propaganda machine for President Mikheil Saakshivili’s government.
Global TV was reportedly the only satellite and cable operator which agreed to carry the signal of TV9. The operator provided satellite equipment for free to its subscribers, which according to Baramidze was a “bribe” and therefore “illegal”.
Representatives of TV9 claim that their programmes are Western-style and open to all opinions, allowing the viewers to make independent judgments.
Several shareholders of TV9 and Global TV were in Brussels recently and complained of harassment by the authorities, as well as arbitrary arrests and destruction of their equipment by the country’s authorities.
They complained that their audiovisual equipment had been destroyed during customs checks. After receiving their equipment, “nothing worked”, TV9 shareholders said.
Asked to comment on this point, Baramidze said: “What I know about Ivanishvili – people are trying to complain about the government in all ways. I’m pretty sure this part of accusation is part of their political campaign.”
'Must-carry must-offer' TV law
The deputy prime minister said that the government had adopted a law, called “must-carry must-offer”, according to which all cable operators should include all existing channels in their packages.
The law, passed on 29 June, was already criticised by TV9. Although it appears to provide a level playing field for all TV broadcasters, his detractors say that cable companies can claim that technical problems prevent them from including certain stations.
In addition, the law expires on election day and therefore most citizens will again rely on pro-government stations to learn about the elections results.
Baramidze also blamed Ivanishvili for “promising” citizens that he will be the next prime minister. He agreed that politicians in the West are doing the same, but said that in the case of Georgia this statement would create problems.
“I’m not saying it’s against the law, but putting all this together certainly suggests that they might do something, some kind of scandal,” he said.
Asked to comment on Georgia low ranking for media freedom (104 out of 179 countries, according to Reporters Without Borders), he said the ranking was “pretty unfair”.
“I think they are judging according to old data, and not keeping up with the recent developments in the country in the last 1 or 2 years,” Baramidze said.