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Georgia's top independent TV station suspends broadcast amid campaign mud-slinging

Georgia's top independent TV station suspends broadcast amid campaign mud-slinging

Journalists of Georgia's top television station said they were suspending broadcasts because of authorities' pressure over its links to a billionaire presidential contender who is involved in a tug-of-war with the government.
Badri Patarkatsishvili, the founder of Imedi television station who is considered Georgia's richest man, has been accused by authorities of plotting to overthrow the government and has remained abroad since Georgian police violently dispersed opposition rallies in Tbilisi on Nov. 7.
Imedi journalists announced the broadcast suspension on Wednesday, complaining about what they described as official pressure.
Patarkatsishvili is challenging Mikhail Saakashvili in the Jan. 5 election and accused authorities of plotting to assassinate him. Georgian authorities have shrugged off the allegations and accused Patarkatsishvili this week of trying to bribe a senior police official.
They said Patarkatsishvili had offered Erekle Kodua, the head of a special police department, US$100 million (euro69.5 million) if police agreed to help oust the government.
Patarkatsishvili, one of several opposition contenders in the vote, said in a statement broadcast by Imedi late Tuesday that he met with Kodua in London on Sunday in an effort to prevent a repeat of last month's violent crackdown on opposition protesters. Opposition leaders have said if they consider the election to be unfair they will call people back out onto the streets.
"I was prepared to pay Kodua a lot of money to prevent force from being used against that part of the population that might take peaceful action after the election," Patarkatsishvili said in his televised address. "I was prepared to pay as much as Kodua asked for." The billionaire gave no figure.
Police broke into Imedi's studio and shut its broadcasts on Nov. 7 _ the day when they violently dispersed opposition protests using tear gas and water cannons. The Georgian authorities only allowed the station back on air on Dec. 12 under a strong pressure from the opposition and Western governments.
Patarkatsishvili, who founded Imedi, has recently handed over control to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. but remained its nominal owner.
Imedi journalists said Wednesday that they were suspending broadcasts until the station's ownership becomes clear, and said they been put under official pressure.
"Each of us and members of our families have been subjected to official pressure and blackmail," Georgy Targamadze, the director of Imedi political programs, said on behalf of the station's staff. "There are no security guarantees for our workers."
Targamadze suggested that Patarkatsishvili fully transfer his stake in Imedi to News Corp. or hand it over to the station's workers. "We are suspending broadcasts until the station's legal status is determined," he said.
The suspension of Imedi's broadcasts deals a heavy blow to the opposition candidates, which have used the station as a platform for their campaigns.
"Saakashvili's regime put a heavy pressure on Imedi, and got what it wanted," said Koba Davitashvili, a leader of the opposition People's Party. "That's another blow to media freedom, and the opposition now finds itself in the information vacuum."
Givi Targamadze, the head of the Georgian parliament's defense and security committee who has close links to Saakashvili, denied that authorities had put any pressure on Imedi.
Saakashvili's popularity has suffered amid criticism that he has shown an authoritarian bent, but he stands a good chance of winning re-election in the former Soviet republic, which he has sought to align with the West.