TBILISI, DFWatch – The crisis continues at independent Georgian TV station Maestro, as suspicion is growing that the interference is politically motivated.
Financier Bidzina Ivanishvili for the first time came to Maestro’s studios Tuesday evening for a live conversation on a regular discussion program called Pirdapiri Saubari (Direct Talk).
Wednesday morning before daylight, the station’s manager broke in and demanded to have journalists assembled in order to instruct them, on the premise that Maestro was devoting too much air time to Ivanishvili. Staff refused to take instructions from a politician, and the crisis developed.
Many see this as a repetition of what happened to Imedi TV, once admired in Europe for its independence, but today seen by most as fiercely pro-government. It was stormed by police in November 2007, and then was subject to a questionable financial takeover ultimately decided in the courts.
At Maestro studios the nervous atmosphere continued Wednesday afternoon as the producer kept alive an emergency broadcast behind locked doors while police prevented most of the station’s journalists and staff from entering.
Broadcasting was cut off for several hours earlier, but staff is improvising to gradually bring viewers updates from alternate locations inside the area under their control.
At 4 pm about fifty police were deployed in front of the Maestro building in western Tbilisi.
Mamuka Glonti, one of the shareholders of Maestro claims that what is now happening is an attempt by the government at closing down Maestro, and they’re using the former head of the company Erosi Kitsmarishvili as a means to achieve this.
Unlike the three national TV stations, Maestro is considered independent and outside of the government’s control.
Due to the latest data, Maestro owners are: Giorgi Gachechiladze, aka ‘Utsnobi’ (25% share), Mamuka Glonti (15% share), Levan Chikvaidze (15% share), Giorgi Ebralidze (15% share), Ekaterine Akobia (5% share). The owners yesterday demanded a new registration, according to which the Channel Manager Ilia Kakabadze had been appointed as a holder of Giorgi Gachechiladze’s 25% share.
Maestro holders had been several times changed for the last one year: On April 6, 2011 Giorgio Gachechiladze, brother of Levan Gachechiladze, who had been one of the leaders of the Georgian Party then, became holder of a 50% share. On April 29 Giorgi Gachechiladze had sold 25% of his share to the other one of the Georgian Party leaders’ wife then – to Kote Gogelia’s wife Maka Asatiani.
In November 2009 Maestro TV was transferred to ‘Rustavi Media Management Company’ with a three-year term managements rights. The 100% owner of this company is Erosi Kitsmarishvili, which later had become the head of the Georgian Party.
Yesterday on November 29 Kitsmarishvili made statements that he was intervening in the TV Company’s editorial policy, which was followed by the journalists’ protest.
This happened right after Georgian businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili was guest on the talk show Direct Talk on Maestro where he discussed the current problems live on air.
Early Wednesday morning, before Maestro would have begun broadcasting, Kitsmarishvili broke into the Maestro building together with other unknown persons. The broadcasting was stopped for several hours.
Kitsmarishvili claims he is not given an opportunity to appeal live via Maestro TV and as a result, he went to the step of firing three of the top people there.
He claimed that he had fired the Maestro co-owners of their positions into the company – Mamuka Glonti and Ilia Kikabidze, general director of Maestro.
Dimitry Gabunia, lawyer who is now representing the Maestro co-founders, claims that Kitsmarishvili didn’t have the right to fire the three and neither did he have the right to break into the TV building like he did. In the next few hours Maestro will appeal to the Prosecutor’s Office with a request to file a criminal investigation against Kitsmarishvili.
Despite the fact that the journalists finally got able to enter the building and the broadcasting has been restored there is a danger for Maestro Broadcasting to be stopped again.
Eliso Chapidze, editor of the newspaper Resonance said this to journalists after coming out of the Maestro building.
Mamuka Glonti is locked in on the second floor of the building now. Kitsmarishvili is in the building yard trying to negotiate with the journalists.
“The journalists are unanimous and are not agreeing on Kitsmarishvili’s proposal to Glonti to leave the territory and the journalist kept working. The journalists demand of Kitsmarishvili as a politician to leave the territory and not intervene in the editorial activity. As I know, there are negotiations that the TV Company founders will abolish the contract with the managing company. Kitsmarishvili is planning to stop providing electricity to the building. So there is a danger that the channel may stop broadcasting.” Chapidze says.
She had been negotiating with Kitsmarishvili suggesting that he and Glonti leave the studio premises together and let the journalist have a peaceful environment to carry on their work and that they could instead take the discussion to Vake district court. Glonti agreed, but Kitsmarishvili refused, and still demanded of Glonti that he leave the premises.
The situation is now stalled. Police have been deployed in front of the building since morning. Mamuka Glonti claims that the police are siding with Kitsmarishvili.
“I have reason to suspect that all these things are done on order. The reason I’m saying this is that the police listen to Kitsmarishvili. I have a suspicion that this is a second Imedi operation and an attempt to close Maestro,” Mamuka Glonti says.
Considering the fact that all this happened after Bidzina Ivanishvili appeared live on Maestro talkshow, the opposition suspects that the government has decided to close Maestro.
“As it seems, yesterday’s live program on Maestro, where the guest was Bidzina Ivanishvili, finally exhausted the government’s patience and they understood that they’re losing not only Tbilisi but the whole of Georgia and they have decided to fight with such methods,” Giorgi Tsagareishvili, representative of the Free Democrats and the chairman of the parliamentary faction Unity for Justice claims.
He focuses on that Maestro current events resembles the day special police forces stormed Imedi TV in November 2007, but now the government has used Erosi Kitsmarishvili, whose political leaning he says is unclear.
Mamuka Glonti is of the same view and says on behalf of all the founders of Maestro that the contract handing over management rights to Kitsmarishvili two years ago is hereby cancelled.
“In the name of 100% of the Maestro co-founders we cancel the agreement with Kitsmarishvili’s company, because he used force against company employees and has stopped it from functioning. He can go to court, but it’s obvious what decision the court will make in this case. I have a serious suspicion that another Imedi special operation is being prepared. Maestro as an independent company is in danger of being closed,” Mamuka Glonti says.
He calls for society, foreign diplomats and the media do everything to protect Maestro through peaceful methods and without violence.
Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA), a Tbilisi-based legal advocacy group, says each person’s right to receive information from any source should be provided first of all by the media.
“GYLA calls for the managing company and owners of Maestro to show more responsibility for their obligations and solve the confrontation through legal means, in order to avoid an illegal intervention in the freedom of speech,” the statement says.
GYLA hopes that the relevant bodies will immediately react to the current events.
“GYLA’s legal center for the protection of media is ready to engage in the process of a legal solution to this problem,” the statement reads.
The Georgian Interior Ministry says in a statement there was a call to the police from Maestro, after which the police came to place.
“The sole objective of the police presence on the grounds is to avoid a conflict between the parties, a conflict and tensions,” the MIA’s statement reads.
Maestro reports that journalists now are allowed to enter the building, but they refrain from going in to keep other unknown persons from entering with them.
The Georgian National Communications Commission calls for the founders and managing company to only to resolve the current dispute and controversy through legal means.
“In our view, independence of the media is on a higher level than any confrontation or any financial issue,” the Commission’s statement says.
Early Wednesday morning Erosi Kitsmarishvili let in other journalists to make a statement saying that he has the right to intervene in the channel’s editorial policy. He said he was firing three employees of Maestro: Mamuka Glonti, the co-founder and producer, general director Ilia Kikabidze and Levan Chikvaidze.
Kitsmarishvili says that these people have a share in Maestro channel so they were fired in their capacity as staff, and not as shareholders.
The co-founders of Maestro claim that they are cancelling the contract they made two years ago with Erosi Kitsmarishvili which gave him managing rights for three years.
Kitsmarishvili claims that the money is illegally spent in Maestro and he has declared that he will have a financial audit carried out.
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