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Last Updated: Friday, 4 January 2008, 12:04 GMT
Georgian TV feud mirrors poll rivalry
By Neil Arun
BBC News, Tbilisi

Georgia votes in a snap presidential election this weekend, but all TV journalist George Rukhadze wants to know is when he will get his old computer back.

TV cameramen at the offices of Rustavi-2
The election has put Georgian media under closer scrutiny
He says he has not seen the machine since November, when armed police wearing balaclavas smashed into the studios of Imedi TV and forced it off the air.

Rukhadze later returned to the ransacked office to find what appeared to be another computer at his desk. But there was no hard disk inside - just an empty box.

"Somebody clearly put it there to show something was still left standing," he says. "It's no joke, though. I lost four years of archives and projects."

President Mikhail Saakashvili pulled the plug on Imedi amid a brief period of emergency rule that also saw troops tear-gas protesters in the capital, Tbilisi.

The government said the TV station, founded by a wealthy opposition politician, had biased its coverage to incite the protesters.

Coup claims

Imedi cited its closure as an attack on free speech, saying it was a symptom of the same authoritarianism the demonstrators had decried.

Presenter's desk at Imedi
Imedi's studio has barely been used since November
George Rukhadze, who edits Imedi's foreign coverage, says he has no idea why his computer had become a casualty of the row with the government. But he has no doubt why his TV station was raided.

"Imedi was the most watched station in November and it was the only one critical of the government," he says. "The government thought they were losing the game."

Though the station was allowed back on air for December, it shut down again shortly afterwards - this time voluntarily.

Imedi's founder and co-owner, Badri Patarkatsishvili, has been accused of plotting a coup against the government, which he denies. Its journalists say they will not go back to work until the matter is resolved.

Mr Patarkatsishvili co-owns Imedi with Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. He is based in Britain and got rich in Russia, where he is now wanted on corruption charges.

He is also a contender in this weekend's presidential election in Georgia and has promised to use his vast personal wealth to boost wages and pensions.

'Editorial independence'

Two days before the election, only a few technicians and guards had turned up at Imedi's offices on the outskirts of Tbilisi. Banks of lifeless TV monitors lined the darkened newsroom.

George Rukhadze
Rukhadze thinks Imedi was targeted over its independence
Across town at the offices of Imedi's main rival, Rustavi-2, the scene was very different, as journalists worked furiously to feed the latest election news into a live bulletin.

Imedi and Rustavi-2 are Georgia's first and second most popular TV stations and their rivalry reflects the deep gulf between the government and the opposition.

Each says it is independent and regards its rival as thoroughly biased.

Imedi is routinely portrayed as a mouthpiece for Mr Patarkatsishvili. Rustavi-2 is accused by Imedi of bias towards President Saakashvili.

Rustavi-2's main news producer, Giorgi Lapherashvili, rejects the charge.

"TV stations should not depend on their owners for their opinions," he says. "They should be editorially independent."

He adds that his overworked colleagues in the newsroom are also angry at President Saakashvili.

"Why did he have to call an election at the New Year," he says, smiling, "when all of Georgia is feasting and getting drunk?"

Revolution allies

Four years ago, President Saakashvili inherited an impoverished former Soviet republic in the Caucasus. He has overseen a period of dramatic economic growth.

Rustavi-2 presenter
Rustavi-2 journalists insist they have editorial independence
His efforts to reduce Moscow's influence and take Georgia into Nato have won him enemies in the Kremlin and many new friends in the West.

But Georgia's dalliance with emergency rule last year dismayed its allies in Brussels and Washington.

The president now hopes Saturday's snap election will dispel any doubts about his democratic credentials.

But domestic critics say his government sees press freedom as a double-edged sword - and is still getting to grips with it.

For them, the recent closure of Imedi and the crackdown on the protests carries sad echoes of Mr Saakashvili's own spectacular ascent, four years ago.

The urbane, US-educated lawyer became leader in 2003 after a series of street protests, dubbed the "Rose Revolution".

His followers on the streets were backed over the airwaves by what was then Georgia's most popular TV station, the privately-owned Rustavi-2 network.

The network's investigative reports had found a huge audience in a public unhappy with widespread corruption.

Rustavi-2 newsroom
Rustavi-2's newsroom is a hive of activity as election day nears

After the Rose Revolution, Rustavi-2 changed owners. Its hard-hitting debates and reporting programmes were scrapped and, say critics, replaced by milder fare.

No longer in opposition, Rustavi-2 came to be seen increasingly as a government ally while Imedi overtook it as the country's favourite network.

But in the last few weeks since the police raid on Imedi, this has begun to change, according to Margarita Akhvlediani, Caucasus director of the journalism development NGO, The Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

She says the network's recent election coverage has become more balanced - possibly as a result of international criticism of the attack on Imedi.

On the chilly streets of Tbilisi, the two networks still seem to polarise opinion.

People who said they would vote for opposition candidates invariably also said they got their facts from Imedi, while supporters of Mr Saakashvili said they tended only to trust news broadcast by Rustavi-2.

Asked about the prospects for press freedom, many were cynical. One man simply shrugged and quoted a local proverb: "He who pays for the musicians will call the tune."



SEE ALSO
Q&A: Georgian election
04 Jan 08 |  Europe
Country profile: Georgia
27 Nov 07 |  Country profiles
Profile: Mikhail Saakashvili
08 Nov 07 |  Europe

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