The Boobs of the Georgian Tube

I was sitting across from the US embassy press attache and a big shot from USAID at a luncheon a few years ago. The press attache asked me what I was working on and I said I was doing a training gig in election coverage for some regional journalists. The USAID person perked up to that. Media training in Georgia is to USAID what a prisoner’s death in Georgian police custody is to opposition politicians.

“Tell us about it!” they said. I exchanged a smirk with a journo friend next to us. “What?”they asked.

“Well, you can train journalists all you want, but it’s doesn’t really help them in the real Georgian world,” I more or less said.

“Oh, so we need to train their editors?” The USAIDer asked.

“Well, that wouldn’t hurt, but it still won’t change anything.”

I could see by the way they looked at their clean plates that I was losing them. It’s the expression anybody who has been in a bad relationship knows.

It’s not good to tell somebody who makes a living doling money out to non-governmental organizations that their good efforts are being wasted. Until the private interests of a media owner is to provide balanced news coverage and not to present coverage that caters to a special friend or particular dogma, then there is no use teaching a journalist much more than how to operate a camera.

Earlier this month, the 3 major Georgian TV stations, Rusatvi 2, Imedi TV and Georgian Public Broadcaster, ran a story from essentially the same script and with the same video footage. It would have been less insulting to just have one anchor do the story for all three TV channels. Of course, the story was about how rude opposition politicians were to the family of a guy who died in police custody. It was not about how these politicians raised the fact that this guy’s death ought to be honestly investigated. The way the TV station covered it, you would think that not only do people fall down and die in police custody everyday, but somehow Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire opposition dude, was behind the death.

I interviewed Akaki Gogichiashvili, who used to be the producer of “60 minutes,” Rustavi 2 TV’s investigative news program, when Rustavi 2 was an opposition channel. After the Rose Revolution, Rustavi 2 became an anti-opposition channel and dropped its popular investigative program. Some people say Akaki sold out because he’s working for the man by producing Rusatvi 2’s business news program instead of pursuing the travails of investigative journalism in a country that no longer airs investigative reports on TV. That may be so, but he’s not afraid to say what everybody knows. “The national channels are quite loyal to the government.”

Akaki gave a perfect example of how USAID is wasting its money. Typically, the government press office contacts the TV stations and tells them what is happening and what the issues are. They pass out press releases. The journalists do not make an effort to find other sources of information or fact check. They are lazy, he says. This explains why the 3 major stations broadcast the same story, the same way at the same time. He doesn’t say, however, if they are ordered to be lazy or just encouraged.

The truth is, there are many western educated journalists working for the Big 3 who know what they are doing is wrong and do it for the sake of a job, or they do it because they believe in the revolution – that by skewering the news they are serving their country. Such is the pitiful state of the media.

My media stories are here:

Deutsche Welle radio – World in Progress

Moscow Times – Here and below

‘Free Press’ Means ‘Free To Support Saakashvili’

19 March 2012

On Feb. 27, 46-year-old Solomon Kimeridze died of contusions in a police station located in a small Georgian town. The prosecutor’s office maintains that he accidentally fell over the handrail of the third-floor stairway. Case closed.

In developed countries, mainstream news would cover the story by questioning the possibility of foul play because even in upstanding cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, people have been known to die after being accidentally pushed around too much in police stations.

In the West, people expect to hear all sides to a story. In Georgian media, there is only “our side” to a story.

The major Georgian television networks will never suggest that some bad cops may have killed a detainee because their job is to remind us that the police are all good guys and that the all-glass “see-through” police stations were supposed to guarantee transparency and honesty.

To hear how the police are really bad guys, you have to tune into Kavkasia TV and Maestro TV, Tbilisi’s two small opposition television stations. In Georgia, this is called “free press.”

When Georgia’s three major television stations, Rustavi 2, Imedi and The Georgian Public Broadcaster covered Kimeridze’s death, they all read from the same script and used the same footage for a story that emphasized how opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili is exploiting Kimeridze’s death for political purposes.

When Ivanishvili announced his intention to challenge President Mikheil Saakashvili‘s authority, the multibillionaire became bad guy No. 1. The major networks have ignored his demands for an open investigation into Kimeridze’s death and snub stories of how his supporters are continually intimidated by authorities. Apparently, this is also a free press.

Ivanishvili bought the license to Igrika TV and gave it to his wife. The last time a billionaire owned a television station that broadcast anti-government views, riot cops stormed the studio during a live broadcast, threw journalists down on the floor at gunpoint, destroyed much of the station’s equipment and shut it down. It is now a pro-government station. Georgia does not need another opposition television network.

Some defenders of the status quo say media freedom is better in Georgia than in Armenia and Azerbaijan, but they forget that Georgia has set itself a Western benchmark. People are tired of propaganda on television and wonder whether they’ll ever be able to get two sides of a story without changing channels from one skewed station to another.

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