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Bring back the debates, all agree

By Sopo Datishvili
Friday, September 19
In his annual address to Parliament on September 16 President Saakashvili underlined the necessity of having debates and talk shows on terrestrial TV. He said that all the conditions for introducing and sustaining such shows should be created.

This comment quickly became the main theme of opposition party briefings the following day. Republican leader David Usupashvili devoted his speech to this subject. “Direct or indirect Government control of the mass media should be abolished,” he said. The problem is serious. At present the lack of talk shows and debates on air is keenly felt. Only one TV channel, Kavkasia, which is considered pro-opposition, broadcasts a daily political talk show – Spectri, with David Akubardia.

After the street protests of November 2007, Imedi TV was raided and closed. At that time Imedi was the most popular channel in Georgia, and opposition leaders took part in different highly-rated talk shows there while boycotting other stations. They refused to give interviews to Rustavi 2 for example, as they accused it of pro-Government bias. But after the sudden death of businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, the major shareholder of Imedi TV (with Newscorp), the channel passed into the ownership of one Joseph Kay. Although Patarkatsishvili’s family is contesting this, Kay has been recognized in a Georgian court as its owner.

Imedi Director General Bidzina Baratashvili says that at the present time the most important issue for the channel is the popularity of its news programme, Kronika. “It is absolutely logical to bring back talk shows, but this isn’t a priority for Imedi as yet,” he told The Messenger. “The popularity of television debates much depends on who hosts them. If we find a popular and much loved face for this job, we’ll start a new show. But it is too early to speak about this. We’ll see - we might have debates in our winter season,” Baratashvili said.

The Messenger has spoken to independent journalist Ia Antadze, who also affirmed the necessity of talk shows. “Perhaps no one in our society is against debates on air,” she said. Antadze sees great significance in the return of dialogue to the television screens, as people should hear alternative opinions as well as the standard ones usually presented. But the most important thing for her is the promotion of impartial TV channels in general. “I think it isn’t enough to just arrange political debates. We need TV that will always tell us everything that happens and how it has happened. Unfortunately today the news is a source of political agitation,” Antadze added.

Leader of the Conservative Party Kakha Kukava is sparing in his comments on this issue. He doesn’t deny the necessity of political talk shows but likewise doesn’t trust the President when he expresses the desire to bring them back. “Action, not words! We have to wait and see whether this is another Saakashvili lie or not,” he says. MP, former Imedi journalist and now member of the Christian Democratic Party Magda Anikashvili says however that an independent mass media is the guardian of democracy. “Nobody has the illusion that one day the Government woke up and decided this. All these sentiments are the result of international pressure. We should show Western countries that we don’t take after Russia”, she said.

The Christian Democrats might seem to be more knowledgeable on the subject of mass media, as the majority of party leaders are ex- journalists from Imedi TV. Anikashvili adds that “We’ll raise the initiative of abolishing one-month contracts for television journalists. It is also important to create some kind of union for journalists. We should look at the Board of Trustees at the Public Broadcaster. It is at least good that the Government has started to talk about this subject.”

Irma Sokhadze, a member of the Georgian Public Broadcaster’s Supervisory Board, has also underlined the significance of news analysis programmes after recent events in the country. She says that the war necessarily changed the plans of the channel for a while, but now it is time to put analytical programmes, featuring politicians, political commentators and psychologists, back on air. In the near future the public broadcaster will present balanced analysis on political matters in its prime time schedule, Sokhadze says.

No one denies that the new initiative of Saakashvili is very important and that now is just the time to restart political debates and discussions. If any television station responds to this initiative, it can assume that its popularity will rapidly increase in a short time.