Georgia Pulls Plug On Russian TV News

Georgian broadcasters have stopped carrying transmissions by the last Russian-language television news channel operating in the republic after it aired comments by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticizing the Georgian government.

RTVi, an international satellite network that features regular reports critical of the Kremlin, had stopped broadcasting in Georgia as of Tuesday afternoon after airing the interview with Lavrov on the situation in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, said Yevgeny Kiselyov, a prominent journalist and one of RTVi's directors in Moscow.

RTVi partners with the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy and is owned by self-exiled Russian businessman Vladimir Gusinsky. Kiselyov is a former television director and anchor on NTV, once part of Gusinsky's Media-MOST empire.

RTVi's London office received a letter from the Union of Georgian Cable Television late Monday saying it had suspended its contract with RTVi's local distributor "due to the military emergency in Georgia," Kiselyov said by telephone.

Kiselyov suggested the decision was prompted either by Lavrov's interview or a desire by Georgian authorities to silence all Russian-language media.

"Georgian authorities have been irritated by ... the fact that the citizens had an opportunity to learn about Russia's stance," Kiselyov said.

Alexei Venediktov, editor of Ekho Moskvy, which also aired Lavrov's interview, called the decision a sign of "weakness" by Georgia and an attempt by Georgian authorities "to hide a different position from Georgian citizens."

RTVi's departure from Georgian airwaves marks a rare dovetailing between Russian authorities and the country's few independent media outlet on the issue of media freedom.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is "talking about democracy and freedom of speech, while at the same time he steps on the basic civil right to be informed," Foreign Ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

RTVi had been the last Russian-language news channel broadcasting in the country after Georgia suspended the operations of Russia's main television channels and banned access to web sites registered in Russia following the violence in South Ossetia, Lyakin-Frolov said.

Georgian government spokesman Zura Kachkachishvili said he did not know who was behind the suspension but said he personally approved of the decision.

"I suppose it was done to avoid panic among the population," Kachkachishvili said. "Russian channels present one-sided opinions."

RTVi's London-based directors have asked Georgia's ambassador to Britain to see that the suspension is reconsidered, Kiselyov said.

"We think that Russian occupation of Georgia must end, and no other issue is important for us now," said Georgy Badridze, a spokesman for the Georgian Embassy in London.

Badridze said, however, that the embassy had forwarded the letter to Georgian authorities.