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First Caucasian given to private company

By Salome Modebadze
Tuesday, July 20
Hopes that the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) would relaunch the Russian-language First Caucasian channel seem to have been dashed. At a meeting of the GPB Board of Trustees on July 14 the channel was given to private company Key One, co-founded by British journalist Robert Parsons. This deal was done despite about GEL 7 million being transferred from the State Budget to ensure the channel's survival. GEL 4,700,000 from reserves will now be given to the new managing company.

International Affairs Editor at France 24 TV and BBC Moscow reporter from 1993-2002, Robert Parsons also directed RFE/RL’s Georgian service in 2003-2005. At the GPB Board meeting on July 14 he explained the importance of his “careful idea” aimed at setting up a “very good channel in the region, where the media environment is so hostile to Georgia that the Russian media is trying to create a distorted image of the country”.

In his speech Parsons stressed that the channel must not under any circumstances be perceived as propagandistic but as an objective, fair channel in which the Georgian Government would be as subject to fair criticism as any other Government in this region. “The channel should talk to viewers in the Caucasus region critically but constructively about developments in Georgia. My goal is to turn the channel into a standard of journalism in Georgia - into kind of a new school of journalism. It will be quite expensive, because the channel will have to compete with foreign broadcasters in the region but still has to look good,” Parsons said, stating that he will bring in award winning journalist David Chater, who has more than 30 years experience in television news, to lead the First Caucasian Channel’s newsroom. He said he also plans to have correspondents in Moscow, Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia, Makhachkala in Dagestan, Kyiv, Brussels, Washington, Yerevan, Baku, Ankara and Tehran.

The decision to give the channel to private management was approved by GPB’s Board of Trustees but the three of its members, from the Media Club, abstained in the vote, requesting that the trustees not take a decision hastily and allow more discussion on the matter. Lika Chakhunashvili said that the decision had been taken too promptly as the members had been introduced to the idea only at that very meeting. “Lots of questions remained unanswered. We the [Board of Trustees] weren’t even given an opportunity to either analyse the situation or postpone the vote for just one day,” she told the media.

Editor of Liberali magazine and fellow member of the GPB Board Shorena Shaverdashvili was also among the members surprised to hear from General Director Gia Chanturia that the channel was being given to Robert Parsons. “Despite the fact Parsons is a wonderful journalist and an admirer of the Georgian language, giving the channel into his management was a complete surprise for me. Most of the Trustees voted to give the General Director the right to make over the management of the channel to this company in just half an hour,” Shaverdashvili said, worrying that First Caucasian, which she says is the only national broadcaster potentially oriented on the public interest, may become a precedent for putting other media sources into private ownership in the future. “There are lots of questions which lawyers need to answer: should there have been a tender announced for making the channel over into private management? Will the channel's programme priorities meet the Code on Broadcasting Ethics? What exactly will the Key One management be responsible for? How will financial transparency be ensured, etc…” Shaverdashvili wrote on her blog on July 17.

The Messenger asked Shorena to summarise the situation. “The real problem is the violation of procedures which has occurred, as lawyers have explained to me, so I’m going to appeal against the decision [made by the GPB Board] along with my colleagues and hope that it will be nullified,” Shaverdashvili told us, stressing that the public interest has never been protected in Georgia and thus this appeal would become a matter of principle.

Levan Gakheladze, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, denied that First Caucasian had been hived off from the Public Broadcaster and become an independent channel. On July 19 Gia Chanturia, Director General of Georgian Public Broadcaster explained to The Messenger that the Board of Trustees had only approved in general of giving First Caucasian into Key One’s management and invited all the interested sides to visit to familiarise themselves with this issue.

“First Caucasian is a quite specific channel whose coverage extends beyond Georgia. Thus we [GDP] have agreed to outsource - keeping 0.12% of First Caucasian for GBP - by giving its management over to a particular company with specific responsibilities. Key One will conduct independent management and take responsibility for developing the technical and professional standards of the channel and will present reports under a preliminary schedule defined by GPB,” Chanturia said, stressing that all the steps taken by GPB are consistent with the law. He explained that receiving the financing given by the Government for special purposes does not require a company to announce a tender. “We are a Public Broadcaster, which means that we are absolutely responsible to the people,” Chanturia concluded.