Unpalatable Georgian dishes

Georgian cuisine is famous for its palatable dishes. It was a different kind of dishes that were on the mind of Georgian NGOs in recent days, as concern increased regarding government action against an independent media company. Civil society watchdogs, Transparency International Georgia and the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, in a joint statement calling for transparency from the Tbilisi City Court in the recent seizure of thousands of satellite dishes from the independent media company Maestro TV.

The NGOs have requested the authorities make public evidence that legally justifies the most recent seizure of property. Otherwise, they argue, “Preventing the distribution of satellite dishes may be publicly perceived as a step that could limit citizens’ access to media.”

Maestro TV, the State Audit Service (SAS) of Georgia asserts, is involved in a vote-buying scheme related to that of which Global TV was accused at the end of June when over 70,000 of its satellites were also confiscated by the authorities.

The SAS maintains that Maestro TV purchased the dishes under instructions of Elita Burji Ltd., a company affiliated with opposition coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. Furthermore, the Chief Prosecutor’s office claims the distribution of the dishes was intended to favour the Georgian Dream coalition. Using the same justification for the seizure of Global TVs satellites on June 21st, the Chief Prosecutor described the purpose of the satellite distribution as a vote-buying scheme.

Maestro TV for its part has called the move and allegations by the authorities “absurd.”

The independent media company announced on 2 July its intention to distribute satellite dishes in the provinces at a very low, “symbolic” rate, to encourage a wider audience of its service. Maestro TV is only available via satellite outside of Tbilisi.

According to the company, the satellite distribution scheme was funded by Maka Asatiani, who owns 25% of shares in the company. Asatiani has rejected any political ties with the opposition or others asserting that the company’s “Maestro in Every Family” campaign was only geared towards increasing profits.

Mamuka Glhonti, co-founder of Maestro TV, in an interview with Radio Free Europe expressed his “sincere concern” that the Chief Prosecutor’s Office would sentence the broadcaster to a “fine that is such a high amount we will be unable to pay, or perhaps they will fine us for such unjustified reasons that, on principle, we will refuse to pay.”

“In that case,” he continued, “they would next probably try to freeze our accounts and we would not be able to function any more. This danger is very real.

Pointing to the fact that the satellite dishes were purchased from the same Turkish provider as those acquired by Global TV, some even bearing Global TV labels, and that it was representatives of Elita Burji Ltd. that handled the customs forms as opposed to employees of Maestro TV, the Chief Prosecutor said provided additional proof of the connection between the two incidences.

Nevertheless, Georgian civil society is demanding the authorities provide a clear explanation to the public as to how exactly the distribution of the dishes qualify as vote-buying by the opposition. The This Affects You Too campaign, which was instrumental in lobbying for the recent “must carry/must offer” initiative, released a statement on 12 July imploring the authorities to “take all possible measures in order to provide citizens’ access to diverse sources of information.”

The group, which brings together different civil society and media stakeholders, criticised the move as creating an “obstacle for [the] development of an independent TV company” which hinders the “creation of a pluralistic media landscape,” negatively affecting the electoral environment by creating “uneven conditions for competition.” They called upon the international community and elections observers “to react appropriately to the cases of restricting and hindering of media in the pre-election period.”

Maestro TV have announced that they will challenge the court’s decision.

Report prepared for CEW by Karina Gould with additional reporting from Radio Free Europe,  civil.ge and Democracy and Freedom Watch