A New Hope For Imedi After Saakashvili Wins

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When I switch to Channel 14 on my television, all that is visible is a test signal. The station that used to broadcast there, Imedi, is in a self-imposed shutdown, a casualty of these long months of political crisis in Georgia. The flamboyant tycoon who founded Imedi is in virtual exile; he is wanted on charges of plotting a terrorist attack and a coup. If you are looking for a story of moral heroics with a reassuring conclusion, don't read on.

Images of the Georgian security forces storming the Imedi studios and forcing the station off the air at gunpoint were among the most shocking to be broadcast on that turbulent November day when the authorities broke up anti-government demonstrations in Tbilisi. The station was the main outlet for opposition views, and the government said multimillionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, who owns Imedi along with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., had been using it to foment chaos. Patarkatsishvili, who is a chum of Boris Berezovsky and is also wanted in Russia, vowed to spend his fortune to oust what he called Mikheil Saakashvili's "fascist regime."

Five weeks afterward, I was outside the Imedi studios when the gates finally swung open again and the staff celebrated with fireworks and champagne. But later, a senior manager showed me what he claimed was evidence of "targeted destruction" intended to cripple the station -- and, he claimed, freedom of speech.

Imedi was soon back on the air, but not for long. A couple of weeks afterward, the Georgian authorities released surveillance tapes that they said proved Patarkatsishvili had offered a senior policeman a $100 million bribe to help him "neutralize" the interior minister and overthrow the government. But the tycoon, who by this time was also running for president, denied it and insisted his own life was under threat.

This was as much as Imedi's journalists could take. They rebelled, saying they wanted nothing more to do with "dirty political games," whether they were being played by the government or its nemesis, Patarkatsishvili. Several resigned, and those who stayed announced that they were voluntarily taking the station off the air again until Patarkatsishvili sold his shares, to ensure Imedi's freedom couldn't be threatened by what they described as "political adventurism" and "government blackmail."

"We didn't want to be seen as part of any of this, so we decided to strike," one of them told me. "We were trying to keep at least relatively independent." Now, with the bitterly fought election battle over and Saakashvili back in office, Imedi could be on its way back again -- as long as there are no more twists in this already twisted tale.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.