EURASIA BLOG: Fighting for air in Georgia

By bne IntelliNews July 31, 2012

Molly Corso in Tbilisi -

With just three months to go before the Georgian parliament elections, the race for media influence is heating up. As in most countries, in Georgia, where 88% of the population depends on television for news, media wars mean a fight for coverage on the box.

A newly passed "must carry" provision means every cable and satellite provider has to provide subscribers with every channel available. But stations associated with the opposition charge that the regulation will do little to diversify Georgia's polarized media landscape in the long run.

Channel 9, a station financed by billionaire opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, has become the focus of the most recent battle. Georgia's three national broadcasters are, as usual, firmly in the pro-government camp. But unlike previous elections, when the opposition was forced to storm the public television building in a desperate bid for media attention, this year they are fighting fire with fire: they have created their own television station.

In April, Ivanishvili revived Channel 9, a station owned before the Rose Revolution by his wife Ekaterine Khvedelidze, and her business partners. They invested $7m to build a new studio, hire foreign consultants, and create bureaus across the country, promoting the station as a Georgian version of the 24-hour news channels run by the likes of CNN, according to CEO Kakha Bekauri.

Stuck in Tbilisi

However, they soon learned that, in Georgian politics, nothing is quite that easy, and despite owning a channel, the opposition is still having trouble getting the word out. Since Channel 9 - now known as TV9 -- announced its plans to go on the air, it has repeatedly faced problems finding carriers for its broadcast signal, which struggles to make it out of Tbilisi.

Khvedelidze tapped her brother-in-law's cable/satellite carried, Global TV, to carry the station. Soon after, however, Global TV lost its contracts to carry other, pro-government television stations - prompting a mass exodus of subscribers since they would not be able to watch popular Georgian language shows. Global TV also lost a fight with the government over a scheme to expand its client base by providing free satellite dishes - a plan the state alleges was in violation of the campaign finance law.

TV9 then turned to another pro-opposition channel, Maestro, which has its own satellite signal. In July, however, Maestro was also charged with violating the campaign finance law when it too announced plans to provide free satellite dishes. Now, with no major satellites carrying the signal, TV9 has resorted to live streaming via the internet, which provides a maximum of around 1,500 viewers per news slot, in addition to the estimated 11,000 viewers in the capital who can pick up the signal.

Sean Griffis, an American communications consultant hired by TV9 to help navigate its public relations strategy, said the problem accessing cable coverage is just one of "a basket" of issues facing the station as it attempts to expand. It has also met trouble leasing office space in the regions, he notes.

Journalists working for the station have been targeted at protest rallies, he claims, reportedly verbally attacked and obstructed from working by pro-government supporters. In July, Amnesty International admonished the government for "failing to protect opposition supporters and journalists from what appears to be politically targeted violence."

The government has taken some steps to help level the media playing field, passing the country's first "must-carry" regulation in June. The law requires all cable and satellite companies to offer every channel available for the two months proceeding to the elections. The requirement expires, however, right before election day.

While the "must-carry" provision was intended to help depolarize the media landscape prior to the elections, Bekauri claims that it falls short of offering real guarantees to stations like TV9, since it only provides access for two months - and there is no provision that assure equal quality broadcast for all stations."The government's primary goal is to block the spread of truth and reality among the population of the country," he insists. "They will do, have done, and are doing, everything to limit the functionality of TV 9 and its ability to broadcast."

The ruling party is refusing to buckle to pressure to extend "must carry" beyond the elections, saying it constitutes "meddling" in private business. However, Speaker of Parliament Davit Bakradze has noted that the parliament will "promote and encourage all the cable operators and TV channels to keep cooperation which they build during the pre-election period."

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