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Georgia Russian-language TV channel has troubled start

Georgia's attempt to create a Russian-language news channel has got off to an inauspicious start. Restricted by a tight budget and limited resources, and accused by Russia of peddling propaganda, First Caucasian has now lost its only broadcast partner, as Tom Esslemont reports from Tbilisi.

First Caucasian newsroom
First Caucasian is the brainchild of President Mikhail Saakashvili's administration

The aim was to create Georgia's only Russian-language television channel, broadcast by satellite to the whole Caucasus region - a region which includes the troubled republics of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.

The brainchild of President Mikhail Saakashvili's administration, it would lock horns with Russia in a televisual propaganda war.

To win the war meant attracting the audience whose only other alternative was Russia's own state media and local channels; drawing in the people who live in Georgia's breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Russia has recognised as independent states.

What could be simpler?

In November, the Georgian government publicly announced the project. By mid-January, the channel was being streamed on the internet and broadcast via satellite.

But at the end of last week, its satellite broadcasts mysteriously stopped.

Sell-out?

The directors of Georgia's public broadcaster, which presides over First Caucasian, flew to Paris, the seat of Eutelsat, the satellite operator which had been relaying the first few programmes.

Map

They say they thought they would be putting the final ink on a contract they had been negotiating for weeks.

But that was where it all went wrong.

Eutelsat said that they had stopped the satellite broadcasts because they "had been part of a pilot project and that no contract with the Georgians had ever been signed".

Georgia immediately said that Russia was behind the suspension. It said Eutelsat had signed "a lucrative contract" with Russian satellite company Intersputnik to provide broadcasts for a media unit of state-controlled Russian giant Gazprom.

It accused Eutelsat of selling out to Russian censorship.

Maya Bichikashvili, the Georgian public broadcaster's deputy director general, even said to the BBC: "If we want to communicate with the world it is possible to do it via a satellite that is not controlled by the Kremlin?" she said.

Eutelsat strongly denies that it has come under Russian pressure.

Spokeswoman Vanessa O'Connor told the BBC that Intersputnik was an established client, not a new one. She also said there was "every hope" that Eutelsat and First Caucasian would be able to agree a broadcast contract.

Budget operation

Organising a Russian-language TV station was never going to be easy and it had attracted its critics even before this debacle.

Georgia's relatively cash-strapped state-funded broadcaster took on Russia's massive news machine and its vast multi-million dollar satellite channel network.

Oleg Panfilov
Presenter Oleg Panfilov denies the new channel is used for propaganda

First Caucasian, with its bright pink-and-white newsroom and triumphant news jingle, looked like a budget operation. And it was.

The channel had been allotted the sum of $1.5m (£900,000) for 2010.

But that did not deter its journalists. News editor and anchor Ekaterine Kotrikadze said the channel would reach out to the audience by offering an impartial service.

"You know it is not going to be anti-Russian, or anti-anyone," she said at the time of its launch. "It is not going to be 'pro' something either. It is going to be the television which shows the facts."

Ms Kotrikadze oozed optimism and pride in the new station, but her channel came in for criticism in its first week.

Russia's interior ministry said the station's programmes aimed to plant what it called "anti-Russian propaganda". But then it might have been expected to react in that way.

Presenter Oleg Panfilov - a journalist well known in Russia for his measured criticism of the Kremlin - denied that the aim of the channel was to take on competition from within Russia.

"It is important to say that it is impossible to beat Russian propaganda," he said. "Georgia does not have the resources to confront all the different Russian channels."

Online phenomenon?

Other observers said they thought the channel was a good move.

"Georgia should care about the opinion of its neighbours," said Professor Ghia Nodia, an analyst and director of the School of Caucasus Studies at the Ilia Chavchavadze State University.

Aida Gagloeva
It was a great idea to have the channel but as far as I can see most of the news from [the north Caucasus] is shown in a negative way
Aida Gagloeva
Student from Dagestan

"The August war in 2008 showed that the majority opinion [of people in the North Caucasus] was not well disposed enough towards Georgia. Georgia wants to propose them an alternative [media source]."

Some of the few foreign students in Georgia from the North Caucasus think the new channel paints their home region in a bad light.

"I think it was a great idea to have the channel but as far as I can see most of the news from there is shown in a negative way," said Aida Gagloeva from Dagestan.

"You see reports about only bombs and extremism, but I think there are positive stories to report on too. And so far I haven't seen those."

Sveta Issaeva, from Chechnya, said: "As Russian channels generally broadcast anti-Georgian information, I think the idea of having a channel which is purely impartial is a good one. But we need to see more of it before we know how impartial it really is."

With satellite broadcasts already suspended, viewers are forced to watch First Caucasian online.

Given the lack of a satellite operator at the moment, it is hard to know whether the channel will ever be more than an online phenomenon.

And even if it does make it back on to people's TV screens, Georgia's attempt to challenge Russian media has already suffered a major setback.



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