Georgia's independent TV channels allege state pressure

Irakli METREVELI
Opposition supporters have staged a series of mass rallies in the capital Tbilisi after the ruling party voted down legislation to hold next year's elections under a new proportional voting system

Georgia's prominent TV personalities and managers on Wednesday accused the ruling party of seeking to stifle independent media and stepping up pressure on critics ahead of elections next year.

Speaking to AFP, owners and managers of nearly all TV channels critical of the Georgian government said that over the last few months prosecutors had launched politically motivated investigations against them.

The complaints of stepped-up pressure on critical media coincided with mass anti-government protests in the pro-Western nation of 3.7 million people.

Nika Gvaramia, owner of Georgia's most popular pro-opposition TV channel, Mtavari, said he faced "false and politically motivated charges of economic crimes" and, if convicted, could be jailed for up to 12 years.

"I received threats from people affiliated with the government and fear for the safety of my children," he said, adding that prosecutors had sent him a video of police shadowing his wife and teenage daughter.

The general director of Formula TV, Zurab Gumbaridze, claimed prosecutors initiated "trumped-up criminal cases against owners or managers of almost all of Georgia's independent TV stations."

"This is a concerted attack on media freedom in Georgia," he said.

Prominent journalist Inga Grigolia, the host of one of Georgia's most watched political talk shows, also said the country's independent media were under threat as their "owners are facing the risk of being jailed on false charges."

Later Wednesday, dozens of journalists from the Ajara public TV station in the Black Sea town of Batumi staged a protest against what they said was the ruling party's attempted interference in the channel's editorial policy.

Ajara TV's deputy director Natia Zoidze said her journalists faced intimidation from a newly appointed director who is affiliated with the ruling party.

- 'Alarming situation' -

Rights groups likewise expressed concern over media freedom in Georgia, chalking up the alleged pressure on independent TV stations to parliamentary elections scheduled for next October.

"The situation with media freedom in Georgia has become alarming," said Eka Gigauri, executive director of the Georgian branch of Transparency International.

"Practically all of Georgia's independent TV channels are under government pressure," she said, referring to the investigations against the media managers.

The ruling Georgian Dream party rejected the allegations, saying media are free to criticise the government.

"Being a journalist or a media manager can't give anyone immunity from prosecution," parliament speaker Archil Talakvadze told AFP.

Over the past three weeks opposition supporters have staged a series of mass rallies in the capital Tbilisi after the ruling party voted down legislation to hold next year's elections under a new proportional voting system.

The government has responded with a violent police crackdown and Georgian Dream has ruled out any concessions.

In power since 2012, the ruling party -- led by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili -- has seen its popularity plummet amid widespread discontent over economic stagnation and perceived backsliding on its commitment to democracy.

Critics accuse Ivanishvili –- who is widely believed to be calling the shots in Georgia -- of persecuting political opponents, suffocating critical media and creating a corrupt political system in which his private interests dominate government decision-making.