Georgian authorities seize 60,000 satellite dishes alleging vote-buying scheme by opposition coalition. Legal watchdogs say the move is illegal.

On 21 June, Georgian police raided warehouses across the country, seizing an estimated 60,000 satellite dish antennas that were to be distributed free of charge by Global TV.

Georgian authorities have claimed that the seizure is part of an on-going criminal investigation into alleged vote-buying by Global TV, in favour of Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the opposition coalition Georgian Dream.

Ivanishvili has been sentenced to a multimillion dollar fine for a loan he made to Global TV to import the satellite dishes. The government has accused Global TV of campaigning for Georgian Dream by portraying the dishes as gifts from the coalition’s leader.

The dishes, which were to be distributed free of charge for one year across the country and then paid for at GEL 4 per month thereafter, were part of a scheme through which Global TV aimed to increase access to all media outlets throughout the country. Currently, Global TV is the only cable provider that offers access to Tbilisi based Channel 9 and Maestro TV, which are considered to be pro-opposition media sources. At the moment, only the major TV networks, Imedi and Rustavi 2 – portrayed as pro-government , are available on all major cable providers throughout the country. Both of these channels have requested their signal be discontinued on Global TV.

Channel 9, which has been vocally critical of the current government, does not possess a license for ground-based transmission. Apart from Global TV, it is only available via satellite or on the internet, making it difficult to reach much of the population outside of Tbilisi. Ivanishvili’s brother is the principal shareholder in Global TV, and Ivanishvili’s wife is co-owner of Channel 9.

Georgian Dream leader, Ivanishvili, lashed back that the only motivation for the recent seizure of property by Georgian authorities is “to maintain [an] informational vacuum, which is created through television channels controlled by [the government].” He accused the government of crossing the line and acting outside of the legal framework in Georgia, asserting that the government is “resorting [to] terror against democracy and free speech.”

Responding to allegations regarding restriction of the media, Deputy Minister of the Interior, Eka Zghuladze in defense of Thursday’s police action, explained that “This is about a certain person having certain political ambitions transferring certain material property to voters for free as part of election agitation for a certain party, and accordingly about possible bribery of voters, which is a crime and is punishable by law.”

Zghuladze, a member of the Inter-Agency Task Force for Free and Fair Elections (IATF), an agency tasked with prevention and prosecution of elections-related infractions, emphasized Georgia’s zero tolerance policy towards violations of electoral rules. She stated that no “particular political party is or will become a subject of special interest,” continuing that “there will be no compromises while enforcing the law.”

Concerns have been raised with regard to both motivation and procedure in the seizure of the dishes. According to Global TVs lawyer, police at first did not present a court order, and once one was presented it was done so without the required seal and signature, as established by legislation in 2011.

Transparency International Georgia, a political watchdog based in Tbilisi, recognizing the importance of investigating vote-buying, corruption and bribery in the run up to the October elections questioned whether property seizure was appropriate in this instance.

In a statement they noted that “According to Article 151(2) of the Criminal Procedural Code, seizing property for preventing it to be used in a crime is only allowed if the property could be used to commit a very severe crime. Vote-buying, however, is punished with a maximum of three years in prison.”

They cautioned that, “Steps should be taken to ensure that actions are not perceived by the public as attacks against the media.”

The influential Georgian legal watchdog, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association in a statement on June 24th  stated that the Court order authorizing the impounding of satellite dishes owned by Global TV was made in violation of the criminal procedures code.

In the detailed statement GYLA said that article 151 of criminal procedures code was violated, because it stipulates that a property of an accused or of a person related to an accused can be seized. The chief prosecutor’s office initiated criminal case into possible vote-buying, but no one has been charged so far into the case. For that reason, GYLA said, the court order on seizure of property was not in line with the law. The same argument was cited by Global TV’s lawyers when protesting against this decision of the court.

The criminal procedures code also envisages applying seizure of property as a preventive measure if there is enough evidence that a property is be used for committing of “especially grave crimes”; but this provision, GYLA said, cannot apply to Global TV’s case because, according to the Georgian legislation, vote-buying does not fall under the category of “especially grave crime.”

On June 21 the chief prosecutor’s office requested the court to impound Global TV’s satellite dishes stored in warehouses. The court approved the request and police forces arrived at several enterprises affiliated to Bidzina Ivanishvili, where Global TV’s satellite antennas were stored, to execute the court’s order.

Global TV’s marketing director, Zurab Bazlidze, told on Saturday that apart  from the stored dishes, the authorities also seized 11,700 satellite dishes, which were imported into Georgia on June 22. With this recent seizure, he said, total number of seized dishes reached roughly up to 70,000.

GYLA said that while the state should take efficient measures to combat crime, “the process should be conducted in observance of principle of justice and law.” It also said that the state should treat with “special caution” media-related cases. on 24 June also reported that Public Defender (Ombudsman), Giorgi Tugushi, told Tbilisi-based Maestro TV, that investigation into distribution of satellite dishes was at least “indirectly” a media-related case. “Of course I need specific evidence to [judge] whether or not handing out of dishes served the purpose of voter bribery. Burden of providing proof lies with investigators; they should provide convincing evidence to prove that seized property could have really be used for vote-buying,” he said.

Prepared for CEO by Karina Gould with reporting from and Democracy and Freedom Watch.