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Abkhaz Campaigners Press for Public-Service TV

State broadcaster rejects accusations it backs government line.
By Anaid Gogoryan

Campaigners are calling for Abkhazia’s state broadcasting company, which they accuse of serving only the government’s interests. But their demands are unlikely to be heeded by the government of the breakaway region.

Opposition politicians, journalists and pressure groups unveiled a package of proposed reforms to the state television and radio company, AGTRK, on July 14. They argued that change was badly needed as the broadcaster restricted coverage of opposition politicians and dissidents.

State radio and TV dominate the Abkhazian media landscape and are a prime source of news for many residents.

The proposal calls for AGTRK to be turned into a public-service broadcaster which would be subject to regulation by an independent oversight committee.

“It is unacceptable for the television station to be used as an instrument serving the needs of government functionaries,” the proposal’s backers said in a statement.

The reform proposal is the culmination of mounting pressure from civil society groups and opposition parties to improve AGTRK’s programming and turn it into an impartial voice.

“A national television and radio station that functions as a public service provider is an important element of any independent and democratic state, and is a sign of a society's maturity,” the statement said.

Opposition politicians accuse the broadcaster of limiting their access to the airwaves, and say programming shies away from covering social issues that might embarrass the authorities.

“The authorities and the opposition should sit opposite each other and discuss the country’s problems in live broadcasts. That would be a plus for the authorities too, as it would relieve tensions in society,” former vice-president and now opposition leader Raul Khajimba said.

Political analysts in Sukhum said they held out little hope that the government would agree to launch substantial reforms.

“Sergey Bagapsh is more secure in the post of president than he’s ever been before, so he has no reason to make swift concessions to these demands from the media community, however modest they are,” said Spartak Jidkov, an independent analyst.

Kristian Bjania, spokesman for President Bagapsh, acknowledged that there were problems at the state broadcaster.

“Despite the fact that the staff at AGTRK work very hard, the content of much of the programming leaves something to be desired,” he said.

However, when asked whether the presidential administration would support changing the wholly state-owned company into a public broadcaster, Bjania said that “current legislation does not envisage the creation of such an organisation”.

Bjania said that without changing the current set-up, AGTRK should be able to host debate shows.

“The best way forward right now would be for the channel to launch a new programme in which representatives of the authorities, the opposition, the analytical community and journalists would have an opportunity to discuss current issues in the republic,” he said.

AGTRK chairman Guram Amkuab rejected allegations that the company’s broadcasting showed a pro-government bias.

“We have invited members of the opposition and the public onto programmes that have come out recently,” he said. “Raul Khajimba was a guest on a current affairs programmes not so long ago. And the authors of the reform proposal have been given airtime, too.”

Akhra Bjania, who heads the Akhiatsa opposition movement, said the state company lacked more than just fair political coverage.

“As the sole national broadcasting company, AGTRK reflects a one-sided view of domestic politics and of public life. It provides viewers with information that’s been filtered, and does so in a boring and unprofessional way,” he complained.

Anaid Gogoryan is a reporter for the Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper in Abkhazia.

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