Rupert Murdoch's brand of "fair-and-balanced" journalism is generating controversy in the south Caucasus state of Georgia.
Imedi, a television station jointly owned by tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili and Murdoch's News Corp., has gained a reputation for broadcasting reports purportedly uncovering misdeeds by top officials in President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration. Yet some Georgian political observers are questioning the station's motives, suggesting that the channel is advancing a politically partisan agenda, rather than striving for objectivity. Station executives say they are merely acting in a traditional media capacity as a watchdog over government conduct.
On March 4, the channel broke its second scandal so far this year, airing what it billed as a compromising tape recording implicating a high ranking government official in a violent prison riot in early 2006. On the tape, an Interior Ministry official, identified as Gia Dgebuadze, and a prisoner, identified as Paata Mamardashvili, have a conversation in which they allege the chief of Georgia's penitentiary system, Bacho Akhalaia, masterminded the riots. The conversation also implicates Patarkatsishvili in a conspiracy to oust Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.
Representatives of the governing National Movement Party assailed the allegation of official involvement in the riot as "absurd," the Civil Georgia website reported. Seven inmates died in the March 2006 prison disturbance, which authorities described as a politically motivated mass-breakout attempt. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Mamardashvili is presently on trial in Tbilisi, accused of being a leading conspirator in the incident. During testimony given March 13, he retracted previous statements implicating Akhalaia in the controversy. Patarkatsishvili, meanwhile, has denied the allegation of conspiratorial activities concerning the interior minister.
Imedi's reporting style since News Corp. obtained a stake in the channel last summer is a source of concern among some prominent Tbilisi political observers. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Gia Nodia, the head of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, said that while Imedi has made some breakthroughs in investigative journalism, the station's reporting is far from balanced. He noted that some earlier Imedi investigative reports, particularly its efforts to publicize the facts surrounding Sandro Girgvliani's murder in February 2006, "served a public purpose." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. However, Nodia added that, in many cases, it seems that the station's coverage is politically motivated. "[Imedi's] purpose is not just for public good," he said in a telephone interview with EurasiaNet. "I see it as oppositional in its reporting."
Nodia expressed concern that the station appeared to occasionally serve Patarkatsishvili's "interests." Erstwhile allies, Patarkatsishvili and President Saakashvili went through a very public falling out during the spring of 2006, when the media mogul publicly pronounced Georgia as an unsafe place for entrepreneurs who dared to criticize government policy. Patarkatsishvili also accused officials of trying to muzzle Imedi after the station broadcast its investigative reports on Girgvliani's murder. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. [Nodia is the board chairman of the Open Society Georgia Foundation, which is affiliated with the New York-based Open Society Institute (OSI). EurasiaNet operates under OSI's auspices].
"Owners somehow consider their media outlets [instruments] for politics...they don't have this idea of impartiality," Nodia said. "Of course the government tries to influence the [media] owners."
Since the Imedi broadcast on March 4, Patarkatsishvili has been the subject of considerable media speculation in Georgia. Several outlets reported that the tycoon had permanently resettled in London and had no intention of returning to Georgia. However, one Russian newspaper, Kommersant, published a story claiming only that Patarkatsishvili was withdrawing from Georgian political life. Meanwhile, reports swirled that the Georgian government was prepared to extradite Patarkatsishvili - a former business associate of exiled Russian mogul Boris Berezovsky - to Russia, where he is wanted on criminal charges. Top Georgian government officials have categorically dismissed the extradition possibility, Civil Georgia reported.
Maia Mikashavidze, director of the journalism school at the Georgian Institute for Public Affairs, described Imedi's March 4 story as not "balanced" because no comment from the Interior Ministry was aired. But she stopped short of saying it was a politically motivated story.
Levan Vapkhvadze, producer of the news magazine program Droeba (Times) on Imedi - where the report first aired - dismissed accusations surrounding the station's coverage. He admitted that the Mamardashvili coverage might not have been balanced from a "journalist's point of view," but he denied that anyone was using the station to promote a particular political view.
According to Vapkhvadze, the journalist was given access to the tape to use it as material "later on." However Imedi was able to secretly copy the tape and conduct its own investigation. He added that the decision to air the tape was made against the family's wishes, but the station acted "to protect" Mamardashvili by publicizing the tape after he was abruptly taken from the hospital days before the trial.
Vapkhvadze also denied that Imedi was attempting to attack or judge Akhalaia. According to the producer, journalists attempted to obtain the ministry's side of the story, but could not get anys comments -- supposedly due to government obstructionism.
"The problem is that the only person in the [Interior Ministry] with whom we can contact is the PR person. Unfortunately we have had a lot of cases where we called and they say that the [ministry] is not making any comments," Vapkhvadze said. "[E]specially this is the case with us. There is no point to even calling."
Mikashavidze agreed that it can be difficult for journalists to obtain interviews from government officials and that affects the quality of reporting. "It is true of all Georgian media because [we] very rarely see both sides [of the story] today. Usually the government does not comment. In that sense I don't know if they [Imedi] had waited if they could have gotten more information," she said.
However she said it is "hard to judge" if the story was politically motivated. "They have one side of the story," Mikashavidze noted. "The problem [getting comments] is probably the government thinks it is politically motivated."
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.