One day after the worst political upheaval since Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, a national news brownout has left most Georgians struggling to make sense of the events that shook Tbilisi on November 7, and to predict what lies ahead.
With the exception of government-controlled Georgian Public Television, all television and radio news broadcasts have been ordered off the air for 15 days after President Mikheil Saakashvili's November 7 declaration of a state of emergency. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. The news brownout has been described as an attempt to defuse tensions.
The decree was preceded by the shutdown of one of the country's main independent news broadcasters, the pro-opposition Imedi television and radio stations, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Special Forces units took over the property late on November 7, after days of heated allegations by government supporters and the president himself that the station, allegedly working in league with the Kremlin, was encouraging political instability in the country.
In an interview with EurasiaNet, Lewis Robertson, the head of News Media Caucasus, Imedi's parent company, reported that riot police ransacked Imedi studios, destroying equipment and confiscating computers and hard drives. "They [special forces] pushed people around and used tear gas," Robertson said. "They did not present a warrant; neither did they offer any explanation." In a November 5 interview on Imedi, Robertson had earlier dismissed allegations of Russian influence on the station as "completely groundless and divorced from reality."
News anchors from rival pro-government television station Rustavi-2 interrupted a talk show late on November 7 to express support for their colleagues from Imedi, and to demand an explanation from authorities for their actions. Under Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's decree, Rustavi's news programs have also been taken off the air for 15 days.
Robertson said that he expects New York-based News Corporation, which owns a majority stake in Imedi Media Holding, to issue a statement on the November 7 takeover of its station. For now, he said, his hands are tied. "I don't know who to speak to from the government," he said.
Imedi staff was allowed to leave the station in suburban Tbilisi late last night, Robertson said. On November 8, small clutches of employees were standing outside the company's main gates, which were guarded by regular police officers. Special Forces personnel remained on the television station grounds. They claimed that no equipment had been destroyed.
Imedi founder Badri Patarkatsishvili, who recently handed over his shares in the company to News Corp., has vowed to spare no effort or money to prompt the removal of Saakashvili from power. "Let no one have doubts that all my forces, all my financial resources until the last tetri [Georgian monetary unit] will be used to free Georgia of this fascist regime," the tycoon said in a statement released by Kavkaz-Press news agency on November 7. The financier also praised Imedi journalists for their courage in responding to government pressure.
The last image broadcast by the station was an address by news director Giorgi Targamadze to viewers. "Special Forces are coming in as I speak to you.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Reporter Molly Corso in Tbilisi also contributed reporting to this story.