Maestro and Channel 9 don't trust the existing cable networks, which have kept them off for years, and instead try distributing satellite receivers to the population, but the satellite dishes have been confiscated by authorities. (Photo: Mari Nikuradze.)

TBILISI, DFWatch – Saturday morning the deadline passed for when cable companies in Georgia will have to transmit three small government-critical TV channels which for years have been unable to reach a broader audience, because cable networks have kept them off.

Less than two months before the parliamentary election, most Georgians rely on three national channels for their news, and all three are strongly supportive of the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili, daily offering him huge slots of their news programs for his live upbeat campaign events.

But since Saakashvili Wednesday announced October 1 as Election Day, a new regulation started having effect. It’s called ‘must-carry’, and came into being after months of campaigning for more diversity in the media before the election.

In Tbilisi, many viewers discovered that when they switched on their TV sets they could receive Channel 9, which was started recently by people close to Saakashvili’s main challenger, Bidzina Ivanishvili. The stories carried in their news program show a different version of daily events.

Saturday, it was still unclear to what extent the newly passed must-carry regulation would lead to real change. But reports from some of the largest towns around the country indicate that at least some cable operators have started transmitting Channel 9, as well as the two other that have been silently “banned” by government-friendly distributors.

In the eastern Kakheti region, Gorda has started transmitting Maestro and Channel 9. So has Central Georgian Communications Co (CGC), operating in and around the town Rustavi, just south of the capital. And the same goes for Super TV, Caucasus Online and Magticom, all of which only cover Tbilisi.

But in rural areas, which about half of the population is living in, technical problems seems to be preventing them from seeing anything of the promised media diversity. Further difficulties seems to arise out of a lack of action from Maestro TV and Channel 9 themselves, apparently from a lack of trust in the must-carry system.

Maestro’s general director Bacho Kikabidze said he is not going to ask any of the cable operators to transit his signal because the law does not oblige him to do so. Anyway, everybody knows Maestro’s technical specifications, he says.

When it comes to Silknet, one of the largest distributors, negotiations about technical issues to transmit Channel 9 are ongoing. Kavkazia was already in Silknet’s package, but Maestro on the other hand is not likely to be included as it has not yet asked the company to transmit.

Also Channel 9 seemed to be standing in its own way by taking a ‘wait and see’ approach, instead of actively promoting its broadcast with cable distributors.

“The main problem for us is the regional cable operators because we cannot reach their coordinators. We addressed all operators in writing, let’s see what happens,” says Kakha Bekauri, the general director of Channel 9.

Channel 9 and Maestro have tried to establish their own distribution system by importing thousands of satellite receivers which were meant to be distributed among the population, but authorities have intervened by seizing receivers, classifying it as bribing of voters.

But Coalition for Media Advocacy argues that the problems with getting distributors to comply arise out of sheer sabotage on the part of authorities.

Spokesman Levan Dolidze said yesterday in Tbilisi that the communication commission, GNCC, which is overseeing the new law, is wrong when it claims that TV companies themselves must market their signal with cable networks. This should be up to the commission, he argues.

Furthermore, after telling TV companies like Maestro and Channel 9 that they have to market their transmission, the GNCC sent them incorrect contact information for cable companies.

“A commission which should be supporting media pluralism is the one currently hindering it,” Dolidze says.

The head of the GNCC’s legal department Kahka Kurashvili said they permanently monitor the situation in both cable networks and broadcasters to assist in case of necessity.

“The law does not specify who has to transmit the signal but when they say that the law obliges broadcasters to ensure the transfer of their signals then let them show us where the law says the opposite that the cable network is responsible for transferring the signal. The law will not work without signal being transferred,” he told DFWatch.

Representatives of the coalition call on the commission to act decisively because otherwise, the implementation of the must-carry principle will be delayed for approximately two weeks.