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Georgians in feud over TV station

By Ray Furlong
BBC News, Tbilisi

The death one year ago of a Georgian billionaire in his mansion in Surrey has led to a bitter struggle, in which his widow is fighting for control of the television station he founded, which she claims should belong to her.

Inna Gudavadze
Mrs Gudavadze says Imedi has changed beyond recognition
A post-mortem concluded that Badri Patarkatsishvili died of a heart attack, quashing theories that he had been killed for his political views.

But his passing has had profound implications - some of them political.

Within days his widow, Inna Gudavadze, learnt that his business associate Giorgi Jaoshvili had sold the controlling stake in Imedi TV, that he was holding on Mr Patarkatsishvili's behalf, to his step-cousin, Josef Kay.

"The family never agreed, never knew about that, and was strictly against passing these Imedi shares," she says.

Mrs Gudavadze still lives in Surrey, but she was speaking to me at her palatial home in Tbilisi, perched on a hill high above the city.

She said the TV station had changed beyond recognition.

"His passing meant Imedi is not the same as it used to be," she says.

"Now, Imedi is the voice of authority and it's crucial for the government not to let us get back Imedi, because once it's back in our hands it will be uncensored and balanced."

"That's my vision, that's what I want."

'Politically motivated'

Imedi was fiercely critical of the government.

In November 2007, the police smashed up its HQ and took it temporarily off air.

Badri Patarkatsishvili. File photo
Mr Patarkatsishvili died in Leatherhead, Surrey on 12 February 2008

Patarkatsishvili was accused of using it to incite revolution during anti-government protests that were also put down with force.

The closure of the station and the handling of the demonstrations were also criticised by the West.

Patarkatsishvili denied the charges against him, believing them to be politically motivated - and shortly afterwards ran unsuccessfully against President Mikhail Saakashvili in elections.

Mrs Gudavadze's case turns on the claim that Mr Jaoshvili was intimidated into selling the shares by the Georgian government.

After we spoke, Lord Goldsmith, the UK's former attorney-general under Tony Blair, arrived for lunch. He is leading her legal battle.

"We've now started international arbitration proceedings against the government of Georgia, claiming, because of evidence that has now come to light, because of a man who has left the country and is now free to speak, that the TV station was taken at the insistence of the government," he says.

"So we will be claiming on behalf of the family that it's been expropriated."

'Psychological pressure'

Mr Jaoshvili broke his silence at a news conference in Tbilisi shortly before Christmas.

He told reporters how he sold the controlling shares to Mr Kay, also known as Josef Kakalashvili, and then went to see him at Tbilisi airport.

A Georgian presenter in Imedi's newsroom. File photo
Imedi is one of Georgia's biggest nationwide TV stations

"When I reached Rustaveli Avenue [the central street in Tbilisi], my car was stopped by people from the ministry of internal affairs. They got into it and asked me to follow them immediately to the financial police," he said.

"At some point on the way the people from the ministry began to act violently. It was around midnight or after midnight," he added.

"At the finance police, I was told to write and sign individual declarations of voluntary resignation from these two positions - chair of the supervisory board of the JMG Company, as well as the chairman of the joint-stock company, Imedi A."

JMG owns 70% of I-Media, which in turn owns 100% of Imedi.

"At this point I realised that the issue was much more complicated than even what I could have imagined," continued Mr Jaoshvili.

"To be brief, I was the subject of severe psychological pressure. After four to five hours, around six in the morning, I had to sign the two above mentioned resignation statements."

'Depoliticised'

But Mr Kay, who is now chairman of Imedi's supervisory board, dismisses the claims of pressure being exerted or that the government played any role in the acquisition.

"We have that footage where he claims that he was stopped on the way and pushed into a car by some government officials or police or something," he says.

Joseph Kay
Joseph Kay says Imedi TV, once linked to the opposition, is now impartial

"But he clearly stated that it was after he had already sold or relinquished the shares."

He also insists that Imedi is impartial.

"We don't take sides. We don't take side of the government, or the opposition. I will not let any side influence the television or how it conducts its news broadcasting."

However, he adds, he has "depoliticised" Imedi, which was once closely linked to the opposition.

Last week, Mr Kay announced he was selling Imedi to a third party - a move denounced by Mrs Gudavadze.

In the meantime, concerns over media freedom in Georgia have been gravely increased by the Imedi affair.

"It has been a real setback for freedom of expression," says Elsa Vidal, from the watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, which has been following the case with concern.

Imedi is one of Georgia's biggest national stations. Ms Vidal says critical voices are now often limited to smaller, regional channels.

"It shows that democracy there is still very fragile and that there are still authorities considering that pressuring the press is a legitimate means of gaining control over the population," she says.

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SEE ALSO
Country profile: Georgia
12 Feb 09 |  Country profiles
Georgia tycoon on 'coup' charge
10 Jan 08 |  Europe

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