Billionaire Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili laid aside the cares of office the other day and invited a select group of TV journalists to his Star-Wars-style residence to tell them that, well, they're no good at what they do.
Ivanishvili, whose speaking style combines the no-nonsense talk of Russian oligarchs from the 1990s with the call-‘em-as-you-see-‘em lexicon of a small-town Georgian man, recently decided to provide free lessons for professionals in various fields. Last week, he spent four hours wagging his finger at a group of policy and economy wonks for getting it all wrong. On October 2, it was the turn of news anchors and producers to get a journalism 101 lesson from him.
Getting in touch with his inner newsman, Ivanishvili pontificated on what journalism is all about and what his irritated guests should really be doing out there. These days “journalists forget about their mission, about their own responsibilities,” the prime minister said regretfully, informing his guests that they are covering the wrong topics, interviewing the wrong people and citing the wrong data.
Referring to a printout (as with the experts), he demanded explanations for the journalists' on-the-air quotes. The constant criticism of the government distracts his team from doing the great job that they do, though it may not always visible, he asserted.
He faulted the group for failing to see all the “wonderful” achievements of his government in the economy field, which in all honesty, with a mere 1.6-percent growth rate so far for 2013 and an official 15-percent unemployment rate, could indeed escape the naked eye.
Anyone out there interested in buying a troubled television station for a third of its market value? Well, the family of Georgia’s Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has one to sell. The channel comes with state-of-the-art equipment and has a successful record as a political campaign tool. The prime minister may be willing to throw in a news agency, too, as a lagniappe.
The signal for Tbilisi-based TV9 went static on August 19 after barely a year and a half on the air. Ivanishvili went through fire and water last year to create the national channel, owned by his wife, Ekaterine Kvedelidze, and Kakha Kobiashvili, a relative of Ivanishvili.
The station was intended to insert a dose of criticism into the airwaves then dominated by broadcasts friendly toward President Mikheil Saakashvili. The news channel may have helped bring Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream coalition to power, but has since become a money pit and source of awkwardness for the prime minister.
“I have always believed and I still believe today that national leaders should not own television stations,” Ivanishvili said, Netgazeti.ge reported. “As I said many times before, it puts me personally and my family in an awkward situation."
After the 2012 parliamentary elections brought the Georgian Dream to power, the prime minister's family "wanted to sell TV9 and Info9 news agency, but out of responsibility and respect for journalists and other employees we extended its operations for 10 more months.”
But enough is enough. Ivanishvili, who has pledged to leave his post by the end of the year, said he can’t continue spending a million dollars a month to keep the station alive.
He may have retired from the American airwaves, but within the ex-USSR, former CNN star Larry King remains a hot commodity. King's decision to sign on with Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English-language TV mouthpiece, has caused jaws to drop, but the coverage mostly misses one side to the story that adds to the irony.
Russia Today is not Larry's first post-CNN gig in the post-Soviet world -- there also was a short stint on the advisory board of a TV station in Georgia, Russia's longtime foe.
King could not be reached for comment, but, according to one TV9 statement, his passion about freedom of media motivated his Georgia move. “I hope to lend my voice to the cause of media freedom in Georgia,” King was quoted as saying.
Armenia and Georgia, neighbors that compete over just about anything, from cuisine to culture, now seem to be going head to head over press freedom. Key media-freedom watchdogs seem to diverge about which of the two countries should take the lead in the South Caucasus.
For years, Georgia has carried the torch for media freedom in the region, a place that is hardly a bulwark of independent or high-quality media to begin with. But, according to the latest press freedom charts by the Paris-based Reporters without Borders, Armenia has taken over the baton.
The country was placed 77th in a ranking of 179 countries, 33 notches above Georgia, and way ahead of neighbors Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran.
Reporters without Borders wrote that both Armenia and Georgia “enjoy broad media pluralism and a low level of state censorship, but they still face important challenges concerning media independence and the working environment of journalists" who are "often treated as easy prey by a variety of pressure groups."
Journalists, who are or have been in Azerbaijani prisons, would beg to differ. With a long record of repressing free media, Azerbaijan hit a new low recently with a character assassination campaign against investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who works for both EurasiaNet.org and RFE/RL.
Media takeovers happen every day, but rarely do they come with scenes straight out of an action thriller. But that's the drama now engulfing Maestro TV, Georgia's main anti-government television channel.
The group then locked themselves into Maestro's premises. Spotting the intrusion, the channel’s morning-shift reporters responded by locking themselves into the control room.
"Why?" you might ask. Keep asking. No one appears to know. (Including why Kitsmarishvili could not simply walk through the front door.)
A tense stand-off ensued. Hunkered down, Kitsmarishvili fired the station's executive producer/co-owner/founder Mamuka Ghlonti and other senior management. Ghlonti, in turn, rescinded Maestro's contract with Kitsmarishvili's managing firm.
And so the matter stands. The fence-hopping Kitsmarishvili and men refuse to let the company’s owners into their section of the station, and, over in the control room, Maestro reporters and Ghlonti are not letting Kitsmarishvili inside their camp, either. “We are keeping the doors locked,” Ghlonti told EurasiaNet.org. “He [Kitsmarishvili] is there with some 15 men, but he is not going to get in here.”
Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire on everyone’s lips here in Georgia, made another of his oracular appearances from his futuristic Tbilisi hermitage yesterday. Just like his previous appearances, the messy, hour-and-a-half-long news conference with President Mikheil Saakashvili's latest opponent is now being poured over obsessively.
Ivanishvili did not get too much down to brass tacks about his plans, though. The rowdy news conference was perhaps more informative about the state of Georgian news media than anything else. As reporters -- reportedly, 200-strong -- literally wrestled for a microphone and for a chance to ask a question, the much-anticipated rendez-vous, televised live on Georgian Public Television, nearly turned into a hair-pulling match.
Hacks from government-friendly television channels went out of their way to grill the tycoon on his ties to Russia; other reporters offered up coquettish adulation. One opted for a question about a penguin and sparrows, but that's a separate story.
All of this was MC'd by Ivanishvili’s overly emotional spokesperson, former Georgian Public Broadcasting Board of Trustees Chairperson Irakli Tripolski, who, gesticulating angrily, barked at inattentive journalists during Ivanishvili's comments to "Listen to him, listen to him!"
Ivanishvili himself remained composed -- "Don't get upset. Everything will be fine," he told the frantic Tripolski at one point -- and stuck to the general, delivering largely diplomatic responses. In a few fresh details about his political plans, he pledged to push for Saakashvili's impeachment upon taking over parliament in the 2012 election. (Apparently, even Saakashvili's "mother would not vote for him.")
After pleading guilty to charges of spying for Russia, three detained Georgian photographers were set free on July 22 in a startling denouement to a case that has scandalized Georgian media and made headlines worldwide. But their release and additional evidence made public by the prosecution promise to do little to quiet the furor around the case.
At a Tbilisi court hearing, the prosecution requested mitigated sentences for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's personal photographer, Irakli Gedenidze, Foreign Ministry photographer Giorgi Abdaladze and European Pressphoto Agency photographer Zurab Kurtsikidze. The court deferred the sentences and released the three men for cooperating with the investigation and admitting their guilt.
This came as a curve ball for local journalists and media activists, who have rallied steadily for the photographers’ release on bail.
The government maintained that Gedenidze and Abdaladze had used their access to government offices to obtain and transmit what it described as classified information -- travel schedules, meeting minutes and a blueprint of the presidential palace, among other documents -- via Kurtsikidze to Russian military intelligence officers.
The sight was apparently a bit too much for one embassy guard who threw a kick-and-punch fit when the topless protesters started demonstrating in front of the embassy, attracting a horde of male photographers in the process.
Holding fake cameras, the handful of women, members of Ukraine's FEMEN protest group, who routinely go au naturel to protest various ills, teetered around in underpants emblazoned with the word “press.” Their backs featured images of a crossed-out camera, a symbol used by many Georgian journalists to protest the photographers' arrest.
As a video clip of the incident made the rounds on Facebook, the embassy issued an apology for the guard's behavior to "those who attended the gathering, journalists and the Ukrainian people." The guard has since gotten the sack.
But the PR problems related to the photographers’ case do not end there.
While a large part of Georgian media rallied in his support, freelance photographer Giorgi Abdalaze, who worked for the Georgian foreign ministry and various news outlets, went on the record this weekend with a detailed account of his supposed cooperation with Russian secret services over the past several years.
In a videotaped statement released by prosecutors on July 18, Abdaladze, who earlier protested his innocence, recounted that he was recruited by the Russian secret services back in 2002, when, as a reporter for a Georgian newspaper, he went to cover a story in South Ossetia, and was detained by separatist South Ossetian militia. He claimed that the South Ossetians took him to Russian military officials, who blackmailed him into cooperation with Russian intelligence. “They put [down] photos of my brothers, and my mother and said that my family would be assassinated if I did not agree [to cooperate],” Abdaladze said.
Among his supposed assignments was shooting rallies allegedly organized by Russian secret services in Georgia. After starting work at parliament's press office in 2007, his intelligence handler also requested photos of "all meetings between the parliamentary chairperson [current opposition leader Nino Burjanadze] and visitors," he said.