Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia: Taming of a Revolutionary Station

Rustavi-2 television loses its fearless reputation.
By Eka Kvesitadze
The television station that was at the forefront of Georgia’s Rose Revolution has lost audiences and its reputation for political investigation, amidst accusations of pressure from the new authorities.



During the peaceful demonstrations against the government of former president Eduard Shevardnadze of November 2003, the programmes of Rustavi-2 were broadcast to crowds in the centre of Tbilisi on a huge screen. As the revolution gathered momentum, Rustavi-2 worked round the clock, urging people to join the rallies.



However, just a few months after the Shevardnadze administration fell and Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president of Georgia, the media climate began to change. Two television channels - Iberia and Ninth Channel - were taken off the air, and the popular political talk shows broadcast by Rustavi-2 and other companies began disappearing.



The official rationale for the closure of the two channels was their own financial problems, while the ending of the talk shows was explained as an internal management decision. However, the opposition started accusing the new government of putting pressure on the media and violating freedom of speech.



Rustavi-2, which had helped bring the new government to power, began experiencing problems too. First the company was declared bankrupt and the majority of its shares sold to a little-known businessmen Kibar Khalvashi, who was a close associate of then minister of defence Irakly Okruashvili. Two weeks ago, the day after Okruashvili resigned as defence minister, Khalvashi again sold his controlling stake in the company.



For viewers, the most important change has been in the content of Rustavi-2’s news programmes. The news programme Courier has lost the reputation for boldness, which made it so popular.



“Rustavi-2 broadcasts only the latest news from the interior ministry or the president’s briefings, there’s nothing interesting to watch,” Marina, 49, told IWPR.



Ia Antadze, a commentator with Radio Liberty, said the changes at Rustavi-2 were directly linked to the balance of political forces in the Georgian government, with two camps linked respectively to Okruashvili and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.



She said Merabishvili had control over the Alania and Mze television companies and influence over public television, while Rustavi-2 and Imedi were associated with Okruashvili.



After the Rose Revolution, Rustavi-2 broadly continued to support the new government. David Kikalishvili, presenter of the news programme Courier P.S., explained, “After the revolution, the journalists regarded themselves as revolutionaries, and, proceeding from interests of the revolution, they agreed with the owner’s position that the political temperature should be lowered.”



The staff protested for the first time three months ago when the authorities demanded the resignation of general director Nika Tabatadze. The news section held a strike that lasted for several hours. A crisis meeting was called, which staff say was attended by Okruashvili and Gigi Ugulava, mayor of Tbilisi – although no one has confirmed this in public.



The news team all then quit the company, but without making any comment.



“They said nothing, because they had nothing to say,” said Paata Veshapidze, editor of 24 Hours newspaper, pointing out that they had put up with the major changes at the station unquestioningly and it was hard for them suddenly to take a determined stand.



However, one leading journalist, Eka Khoperia, announced live on television that she was quitting because of “unacceptable demands from certain representatives of the authorities”, whom she did not name.



Following the mass resignations, Koba Davarashvili, a close friend of Economics Minister Giorgy Arveladze, was appointed general director of the company, and a former head of the press service of the governing party, the National Movement, was put in charge of the news section.



But ratings have dropped dramatically. The Courier news programme used to have an audience share of 50-60 per cent, but now only gets between six and 11 per cent of the audience.



“The authorities are well aware of the power the television has,” said Paata Veshapidze. “They do not want to have such a powerful bomb that may explode at any moment.”



The latest audience figures show that Rustavi-2 now lags behind Imedi, a television company owned by businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, who is an associate of former Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. In August, Imedi signed a partnership agreement with Rupert Murdoch’s media giant News Corporation.



Before the local elections in October, Imedi’s news programmes took a critical line with the government and government figures boycotted the channel’s political talk show Reaction for several months.



In its turn, the opposition has shunned Rustavi-2, saying the channel has turned into a “branch of the government”.



Experts say that the media is less independent and critical of the government than it used to be and that is harder to obtain information from official sources. But, said television critic Ninia Kakabadze, “there are not enough factual arguments to say that the authorities are directly putting pressure on the media.



“To any question why this or that journalist has been sacked or why this or that programme has been shut down the authorities give one simple answer - we have nothing to do with this, this is what the management has decided. That is why the main question is, who the management is, how they take decisions and who influences them.”



“Independent reporting is hampered by journalists’ self-censorship,” said Tamara Shamil, a media expert with the Caucasian Institute of Peace, Democracy and Development in Tbilisi. “Most of them are waiting to see how their new masters will react.”