Political Channel-Hopping in Georgia

Cable operators required to carry all TV channels, not just regime-friendly ones, ahead of October polls.
By Nana Kurashvili - Caucasus
CRS Issue 649,
9 Jul 12
Under pressure from opposition parties and NGOs, Georgian officials have agreed to force cable TV companies to broadcast all national news channels, including those critical of the government, during campaigning for the October parliamentary election.
The Georgian parliament last week passed amendments to the country’s electoral law obliging media companies to carry every available TV station during the 60 days preceding the election.
The law is a response to complaints about cable operators which only carry channels associated with the government. Opposition parties have long accused government officials of ensuring that only the favoured channels are seen in the majority of households.
The government and the ruling United National Movement initially objected to the draft legislation, saying the media scene was diverse enough already, and it was wrong for the state to tell private companies how to run their businesses.
The change means that all cable companies have to carry national TV channels, licensed satellite channels, and any other channels that currently reach more than a fifth of the population. Regional channels must be broadcast by cable operators in their own areas only.
The legislation should level the playing field for the election, by providing equal levels of access to the whole range of information sources.
One major outcome is that everyone in Georgia will have access to the Channel 9, which is owned by the wife of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose opposition party Georgian Dream has emerged as a serious contender for the election.
Channel 9 started broadcasting two months ago, and is currently only available to subscribers to Global TV, a cable operator part-owned by Ivanishvili’s brother.
In June, Global TV ran into trouble with the authorities, resulting in the seizure of 300,000 satellite dishes. The chief prosecutor’s office said the equipment was impounded as part of an investigation into alleged vote-buying, since handing out the dishes free of charge could be seen as offering an illegal incentive.
The Georgian Dream party disputed this, accusing the government of trying to create an “information vacuum” by shutting out Global TV.
Channel 9 provides more coverage of Georgian Dream than other stations and is critical of the government. Other opposition television channels include Kavkasia and Maestro, which currently can only be seen in the capital Tbilisi.
Over 170,000 households in Georgia had cable TV subscriptions as of the end of 2011, suggesting that the new rules will have a significant impact on a population of under five million.
Experts say the impact will be greatest in provincial areas, where previously only the pro-government channels have been available.
“This will give a large part of the population the chance to watch the smaller channels, which are very critical of the authorities, and also balance out the information received from the national channels,” Mathias Huter of Transparency International Georgia said.
Opposition activists say the new broadcasting rules do not go far enough, as the requirement to carry all channels ends on election day, so while voters will get campaign news, they will not hear the full range of views on the results and subsequent events.
“When the channels are switched off on election day, it will create unhappiness among the population and make the situation more tense,” said Levan Vepkhadze, a parliamentarian from the opposition Christian Democrats party.
A pressure group called This Affects You, which lobbied for the bill, said the rules should have remained in force until the final election results were announced.
The authorities disagreed, saying the broadcasting regulations were designed specifically to facilitate party campaigning, rather than any other aim.
“The law… will be a big step to ensuring our population receives more information and has a chance to hear alternative points of view,” David Bakradze, the speaker of parliament and a member of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement, said.
Nana Kurashvili is a freelance journalist in Georgia.