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Lack of independent media marks Georgia vote

As Georgia heads to the polls, observers warn of a crucial lack of independent media there. Media supporting the opposition say the government is curbing press freedoms, while Tbilisi dismisses the accusations.

A "torture scandal" in Georgia is increasingly turning into a much wider debate about the role of the media in the election campaign. Media representatives complain about infringements on freedom of the press by the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili. Among those protesting are also staff of the opposition channel TV 9.

TV 9 in mid-September triggered the torture scandal by airing a video showing how prison inmates were being beaton up by their guards, and raped with batons and broomsticks. Triggering countrywide protests, the broadcast also led to resignation of the interior minister and the minister responsible for the penal system.

Journalism or lies?

Protesters in Tbilisi (photo: VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/GettyImages)

The torture videos triggered massive demonstrations in Georgia

The scandal might well cost a lot of votes for Saakashvili's party, the "United National Movement." The biggest challenger in the October 1 parliamentary vote is "Georgia's Dream," a party founded early 2012 by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. He and his party accuse Saakashvili of authoritarian rule. The Interior Ministry, however, insists that Ivanishvili's supporters staged the controversial video.

Although Ivanishvili's wife owns an 80 percent share in TV 9, the station presents itself as independent. Levan Karumidze, the broadcaster's public relations person, points to its staff: "We only have staff who have fought all their life for independent TV," he told DW, saying they'd never work for a station that serves the interests of one candidate. "We cover what's really happening in Georgia - good things and bad things," said Karumidze.

Yet the government camp sees things differently. David Dartshiashvili of the governing United National Movement said the claim that TV 9 delivers balanced reporting is a "shameless lie."

"Starting with the staff and management going all the way to financing, everything depends on Bidzina Ivanishvili," Dartshiashvili said. "It's a machinery of lies, created by Ivanishvili. Everything that they broadcast is unacceptable and unbelievable."

Accusations against the government

But journalists working for TV 9 insist it's the Georgian government that's trying to prevent the people from finding out about what's going on in the country. Which is why, they claim, TV 9 is being prevented from doing its work. For instance, the station has apparently found it impossible to obtain an analogue frequency. "We're forced to broadcast via satellite and the Internet," said Karumidze.

Georgian tycoon and politician Bidzina Ivanishvili (REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze)

Georgian tycoon and politician Bidzina Ivanishvili

TV 9 has only been available on cable for a few weeks - something NGOs had pushed for to allow for more balanced media coverage in the run-up to the election. Despite this, Karumidze believes that after the vote, they'll be taken off cable again.

TV 9 staffers even claim they've being threatened by the government. A reporter said that after he quit a state broadcaster to work for TV 9, armed men attacked him. When he went public about the incident, intruders trashed his apartment, he said.

No real press freedom

International observers are also concerned about the situation in Georgia. In a global press freedom ranking, the country comes in at number 104 of 179. "There's no real press freedom to speak of, even though journalists in Georgia work under much better conditions than for instance in neighboring Azerbaijan," Ulrike Gruska of Reporters without Borders told DW.

The biggest problem, she said, is that there is hardly any independent media in the country. "The biggest TV and radio stations are financed by the government, while critical broadcasters are mostly close to opposition politicians or businessmen," Gruska explained.

Both of those sides are prejudiced, while independent journalism is hardly possible under such conditions. TV 9 as well is biased, she said, pointing to how just weeks ahead of the election, broadcasting the torture video brought the government under heavy fire.

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