While Georgia's state of emergency is expected to end soon, President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration seems intent on maintaining its hardline stance toward its political foes. Representatives of the Imedi television channel, which has served as the main avenue for criticism of Saakashvili's policies, assert that the government has suspended the station's broadcast license. Meanwhile, prosecutors say that want to put former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili back in jail.
According to Lewis Robertson, the head of News Media Caucasus, Imedi's parent company, the station was informed November 13 that a Georgian judge issued an order to suspend the channel's broadcast license and bar employees from entering the station's facilities. The court order does not cover Imedi's radio station, the Civil Georgia website reported.
During a November 14 meeting with Imedi journalists, Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze did not give any indication when the license suspension might be lifted, Levan Vepkhvadze, an Imedi producer, told Civil Georgia. The station's managing director, Bidzina Baratashvili, said the Tbilisi judge issued the order on November 7, adding that it took authorities almost a full week to hand it to him, Civil Georgia reported.
Robertson said that Imedi's team of Georgian lawyers was working on a "response" to the ruling, adding that the company, part of media baron Rupert Murdoch's global television empire, would file appeals and lawsuits in "every" court necessary. According to some reports, the company was planning to file suit at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Since security forces moved November 7 to break up an opposition protest in central Tbilisi, the Georgian government's efforts to muzzle Imedi have been a source of tension between Tbilisi and the country's political patrons, namely the United States and the European Union. US and EU diplomats have demanded that the government allow the privately owned television station to resume broadcasting. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Given the expressions of concern by Western governments, the government's suspension of Imedi's broadcast license would seem ill-timed and destined to exacerbate tension among allies. Georgian officials at the same time have indicated that the state of emergency will be lifted by November 16.
Shorina Antaparidze, a spokesperson from the Prosecutor General's office for public information, told EurasiaNet that there is "no criminal case" opened against Imedi currently. She said that her office had no information about the judge's order, or if official criminal proceedings would be opened against the television station.
Imedi was forcibly closed by riot police on November 7 prior to the government's introduction of a state of emergency. Officials have insisted that the station was being used by its owner, opposition-financier Badri Patarkatsishvili, as a tool to overthrow the government. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In late October, Patarkatsishvili announced his intention to transfer his shares in Imedi to News Corp. for a one-year period. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Imedi employees and News Corp. representatives have denied the government allegation.
After Imedi was taken off the air, the government also closed Kavkazia, another pro-opposition television station. All television and radio media outlets with the exception of government channels were prohibited from broadcasting news and information content as part of the official state of emergency.
EurasiaNet obtained cell phone photographs from the damage taken by Imedi staff during the raid. According to Baratashvili, the images are the station's "weapon" to fight against the government's charges.
While officials gave diplomats a tour of the station over the weekend to counter reports that riot police deliberately destroyed equipment and the television station's archive, Robertson argued that the station reportedly appeared "too clean."
Political scientist Gia Nodia noted that there is a lack of consensus in the government itself about Imedi's fate. While he stated the government can "logically" argue its position that the station was provoking instability in the country, Nodia underlined that officials must be "very convincing" if they decide to keep the station off the air.
"I think that by closing Imedi down and by all the events of November 7, very deep and lasting negative [damage has been] done to Georgia's international image," he said. "[O]n one side the damage is already done, but how the Imedi issue is resolved [by the government] is important to repairing that damage."
In other developments, the General Prosecutor's Office has petitioned a Tbilisi court to revoke Okruashvili's bail, and return him to jail. In late September, Okruashvili became the target of a government criminal investigation and was taken into custody, just days after he went public with accusations that Saakashvili had engaged in a variety of illegal activities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. He was released on bail October 9 and went to Germany, ostensibly to seek unspecified medical treatment.
Court proceedings are scheduled to begin November 16 to consider charges of extortion and other financial misdeeds that Okruashvili is alleged to have committed. Prosecutors say that they wanted to interview Okruashvili to obtain additional information, and when he did not answer a summons, they decided to seek an order revoking the former defense minister's bail.
Eka Beselia, Okruashvili's lawyer, told EurasiaNet that at 8 pm on November 13, officials from the Prosecutor General's office appeared at Okruashvili's home with a request that he submit to further questioning. When the officials found that Okruashvili was not at home, they quickly issued an arrest warrant. Beselia said that Okruashvili had intended to return to Georgia for his court date. Given the latest development, the lawyer said Okruashvili's return was now out of the question.
Elsewhere, parliament is considering a package of amendments to Georgia's election law, Civil Georgia reported. The amendments would lower the electoral threshold needed to gain parliamentary representation from 7 percent of the vote, to 5 percent. They would also alter the appointment process to the Central Election Commission (CEC). Under the proposed new formula, the president would name five of the 12 members, and political parties eligible for state funding would get to fill one post each. Under Georgia's current political configuration, opposition parties would end up controlling six of the CEC's 12 seats.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.