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article imageGeorgia TV head accuses government of blackmail in power struggle

By AFP     Oct 21, 2015 in Politics

The head of Georgia's main independent television station on Wednesday accused the government of trying to blackmail him as part of a struggle for control that critics say is aimed at stifling free media in the ex-Soviet state.

The director of the Rustavi-2 TV channel, Nika Gvaramia, said that a government middleman had threatened him with the release of covertly recorded videos of his "private life" to try to force him to resign.

"Things are developing in a way that leaves no space for free media in this country," Gvaramia said in a televised statement.

The office of Georgia's prosecutor general promptly initiated a probe into Gvaramia's claims.

Since August, the television channel has been locked in a bitter ownership battle that has rocked the tiny Caucasus country and sparked fears in the West that the ruling Georgian Dream coalition could be looking to clamp down on independent media.

A court froze the broadcaster's assets over the summer after a businessman close to Georgian Dream filed a lawsuit to reclaim control.

Government critics and the station's current owners have denounced the move as part of a government-orchestrated campaign aimed at silencing critical media in the lead-up to 2016 parliamentary elections.

Georgian rights groups and Western diplomats have alleged possible government interference in the ongoing legal battle between the current and former owners of the Rustavi-2 TV -- Georgia's most popular pro-opposition broadcaster.

"There are a number of circumstances which cause serious suspicion about government's influence on the ongoing process" and "call the existence of dissent, critical opinions in media into question," said some dozen civil society and media organisations in a joint statement.

The United States has also expressed concern over the dispute, saying in October that the actions that "give the appearance of (...) constricting media freedoms or compromising that media pluralism are disturbing."

Independent media in Georgia has often had fraught relations with those in power since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, as often fiercely partisan journalists have struggled to shed political interference in their work.

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