A satellite news channel making its debut January 25 in Georgia receives government financing, but maintains that it will operate independently. The channel features two well-known Kremlin critics as show hosts, but executives insist that its mission is not to bash the Russian government.
The station, Kanal Pik, began broadcasting with a live call-in show with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. It is not the first Georgian sortie in the long-running information war between Georgia and Russia; Alania TV began broadcasting Russian-language news to separatist-controlled South Ossetia in 2005. The station faded from prominence after the 2008 war with Russia over South Ossetia, but, a year later, another Russian-language satellite TV station emerged.
Georgian Public Broadcasting (GPB) set up Pervyi Kavkazskyi (First Caucasus) in 2009 primarily to counteract negative coverage of Georgia by Kremlin-controlled media. The station last year lost its French-owned satellite frequency, which was later sold to Gazprom Media Group.
Last July, GPB outsourced First Caucasus to K1, a new company co-owned by British broadcast journalist Robert Parsons. Critics characterized the move as a government attempt to use GPB to advance its own foreign policy goals. Financing for the station’s makeover came from a special government reserve fund, and the contract was awarded without a public tender.
But representatives of the Georgian government and GPB -- along with Parsons, who also worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Georgian service from 2003 to 2005 -- insist that Kanal Pik is not under the Saakashvili administration’s direction. Parsons says he was approached by government officials to run the station, but asserts that Kanal Pik enjoys total editorial independence.
He insisted that he would resign immediately if any Tbilisi official attempted to influence coverage. “The funds come from a government grant, approved by an independent board of directors. But is the government going to control the content? No!” Parsons said.
The government’s 14-million-lari (over $7.7million) grant allows Parsons’ K1 to run the station for a year. To put that deal in perspective, Georgian Public Broadcasting receives 25 million lari (about $13.8 million) to run two television stations and three radio stations.
GPB General Director Gia Chanturia justified Kanal Pik’s comparatively large budget by pointing out that the channel, which shares studio space with another TV station, needed several million lari for equipment alone.
GPB board member Shorena Shavardeshvili, editor of the weekly news magazine Liberali, questioned the need to spend so much money on a TV station that will broadcast abroad. The funds would be better spent on improving the quality of domestic broadcast news outlets, she maintained. “When you have a domestic information vacuum, why broadcast outside if this wasn’t a political mission?” Shavardeshvili asked.
“I’d rather have the money spent domestically,” she continued, referring to Kanal Pik’s 14-million-lari grant. “That should be our priority.” [Editor’s Note: Liberali receives funding from the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Georgia, part of the Open Society Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, a separate part of the foundations network].
News content will make up just two hours of Kanal Pik’s daily six hours of programming (available on Hotbird, from 6pm until midnight, Moscow time); the remaining four hours will include a talk show hosted by Russian journalist Oleg Panfilov, a critic of the Medvedev-Putin government who relocated to Georgia in 2009, and “Caucasian Portraits,” a First Caucasus holdover that features Ala Dudayeva, widow of Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, painting portraits of people while interviewing them.
Kanal Pik supporters say such programming aims to present alternative viewpoints to a Russian-speaking audience. “It’s important to offer an opportunity to people in the North Caucasus and Russia to access this alternative viewpoint because most of the time the state- owned or state-controlled media in Russia portrays events in this region in a very biased way,” commented Giorgi Kandelaki, deputy chair of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and an MP for the governing United National Movement. [Editor’s Note: Giorgi Kandelaki is a former EurasiaNet.org editorial associate].
Some observers in Tbilisi, though, question the logistics. Zviad Koridze, a professor of journalism at Tbilisi State University, wonders how journalists will report objectively from the North Caucasus, a region that features severe restrictions on journalists -- restrictions that may only intensify in the wake of the January 24 bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.
David Chater, a former Sky News and Al Jazeera reporter recruited by Parsons to head Kanal Pik’s newsroom, admits that reporting in the North Caucasus is daunting, but is confident that local freelancers can do the job.
Kanal Pik co-owner Katya Kotrikadze, Pervyi Kavkazskyi’s former news director who now acts as assistant news director for Kanal Pik, believes that such obstacles can be overcome by using international news agencies for information and by calling officials to “get the second side of things.”
Reporting from the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia may prove still trickier; neither territory allows Georgian television reporters across their borders, and phone connections from Tbilisi are often problematic.
Parsons hopes that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will change their policies after they see the quality of Kanal Pik’s broadcasting. “Many people are skeptical about [the] new channel -- this is Georgia,” said Chanturia, the GPB general director. “But see it first, then decide.”
Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.