Opinion

Global TV: Freedom of Speech under Attack

by | May 28, 2012

Alexander Baramidze is a lawyer currently working for Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Global TV is a cable operator that provides services to its subscribers in Tbilisi and some other regions of Georgia. The company also owns a satellite broadcasting license which allows it to broadcast its signal by way of satellite. Before 2012, Global TV had a more-or-less stable life. By number of subscribers the company ranked third in a pretty diversified cable operators market in Georgia, writes Alexander Baramidze, lawyer who works for Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Everything turned upside down early this year when the company’s leadership decided to include Channel 9 in its program packages provided to the company’s subscribers. Channel 9 is a brand new TV station in which the present government of Georgia apparently sees a major threat to the status quo that has been shaped in the Georgian TV market since the Rose Revolution, where the market has been dominated by three government-controlled national broadcasters with a small segment of alternative sources of information being left for the viewers in Tbilisi.

There is a reason for why the Government has been so nervous about Channel 9. The station is owned by a company in which most of shares are held by the wife of a Georgian billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili. In October 2011, Mr Ivanishvili proclaimed his desire to establish a political party and run for office in parliamentary elections due in October 2012. The government is anxious that Channel 9 will break the myth of democracy and economic growth which has been indoctrinated by the three nationwide pro-government broadcasters by all means, including old Soviet-style propaganda and some modern and advanced methods of brainwashing.

As soon as Global TV proclaimed its decision to carry the Channel 9 signal, on several occasions the company found its that equipment it was importing was damaged at customs terminals. There is credible evidence that the equipment in question was working before it reached customs. Therefore, the government’s inaction in terms of investigating crime and bringing those responsible to justice only strengthens suspicion that the damage was inspired by the government itself. By the way, some similar problems with other media outlets have been mentioned by the US Department of State in its recently publicized 2011 human rights report for Georgia.

In March, Global TV received letters from the broadcasting companies Imedi TV, Rustavi 2, Akhali Arkhi, Mze and Sakartvelo (all the five companies have been controlled by the government in way or another), all within just a few days, in which they demanded that Global TV remove their signals from the program packages provided by Global TV to its subscribers. Imedi TV and Rustavi 2 explained their demand by their intention to enter into a contractual relationship with some competitors of Global TV. In any country with some culture of antitrust regulation this kind of behavior would be unthinkable. However, in this country, where the general antitrust law was abolished in 2005, Imedi TV and Rustavi 2 did it with complete impunity.

However, this was not the end of story with Imedi TV and Rustavi 2 signals. In April, Global TV was informed by Rustavi City Hall that it was terminating a cable service contract with Global TV due to the latter’s failure to supply Rustavi 2 and Mze channels. Similar letters were received from some other government offices which used to be Global TV’s longtime subscribers and never had expressed their dissatisfaction with the company’s services before. Furthermore, just a few days ago, the State Procurement Agency proclaimed that it would no longer invite Global TV to take part in public tenders due to its “failure” to comply with its contractual obligations to its subscribers.

Furthermore, some time ago, the Tbilisi City Court issued two injunctions against Global TV whereby the company was banned from “retransmitting” Rustavi 2 and Imedi TV signals “by all means” including “by way of satellite dishes”. The fact is that Global TV has ceased retransmitting the signals of both broadcasters since March 2012, having complied thereby their demand. Obviously, the government aims to sabotage Global TV’s recently launched campaign of installing satellite dishes to its viewers whereby they will be able to receive a Channel 9 signal. By the way, as the Turksat satellite used by Channel 9 also transmits Rustavi 9 and Imedi TV signals, because it is the same Turksat that had been contracted by Rustavi 2 and Imedi TV to retransmit their signals, anyone who owns a satellite dish installed by Global TV may receive the signals of Rustavi 9 and Imedi TV as well. The Tbilisi City Court, having no special knowledge and understanding of such technical nuances, assumed that “installing satellite dishes” amounts to “retransmission of signal by means of satellite” which of course is not true. But that’s how the Georgian judiciary works.

Finally, a few days ago, the Chamber of Control, a government’s audit agency that has become increasingly notorious because of its oppression of and placing disproportionately heavy financial burden on political parties, so-called “related individuals and entities” and even some ordinary citizens, published a statement claiming that some Global TV teams that worked on the installation of satellite dishes have worn T-shirts with Georgian Dream logos. Georgian Dream is a political coalition led by Mr Ivanishvili. But what does the government audit company have to do with an individual’s rights to wear clothing of his/her choosing? Does it mean that in a near future Global TV will be attacked by the Chamber of Control as well?

The Georgian National Communication Commission (GNCC) also plays some important role in the government’s war on Global TV. Some time ago, the company received a letter from the chairman of the GNCC , in which he, without having any legal basis and authority, demanded that the company “refrain” from the retransmission of the signal of TNT, a popular foreign TV channel. In the letter it was claimed that Global TV had failed to provide the GNCC with a copyright license to retransmit TNT’s signal in Georgia. In fact, Global TV did present to the GNCC such a document. But, more importantly, it must be noted that in no rule-of-law-based state does a communications regulatory agency, which by definition is an administrative agency, have a power to enforce the copyright law because due to its private-law nature copyright is an exclusive realm of civil courts. But the GNCC’s strategy is very clear: if this scheme is “successfully piloted”, the GNCC may further demand that Global TV “refrain from the retransmission” of any other channel(s) as well, which means that in the very near future the cable operator may be deprived of the whole package of channels and may have nothing to deliver to its customers. Obviously, under such developments, the cable operator will hardly be able to retain contracts even with the most faithful subscribers.

The consistency and regularity of the above events practically exclude the probability of their spontaneity. It is clear that all these events must have been planned and orchestrated in one control center. It is also clear that such a control center should be searched for in the high echelons of power. Global TV is facing an illegal syndicate of government agencies and “private” business entities which have a key objective to drive the company out of business.

All this has nothing to do with democratic society, pluralism of media environment, and the freedom of expression. These values have been getting more and more inaccessible to the Georgian people.

 



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