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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soap Operas but No News on Georgian Television

TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgians looking to the television for information on the country's worst political crisis in years are out of the luck these days. They'll find soap operas and comedies, but no independent news programs.

Four days after being put into place following clashes between police and demonstrators, President Mikheil Saakashvili's ban on news broadcasts has deprived most Georgians of their primary source of information about the unrest.

The decision to pull the plug has also deprived the opposition of a platform before presidential elections and raised questions about Saakashvili's commitment to democracy.

Saakashvili -- a pro-Western leader whose own rise to power was fueled by independent media -- ordered a 15-day state of emergency to defuse a standoff with the opposition.

The measure banned all news reports except on public television and radio.

The government sent riot police to shut down the country's most popular station, Imedia, as well as a smaller channel, Kavkasia.

On Saturday, both channels were off the air; other stations, including the pro-government Rustavi-2, broadcast mostly homegrown entertainment programs. Some opposition newspapers could be seen in the capital Saturday, but most have small circulations.

The use of force and the news ban prompted harsh criticism in the West. The United States and Europe's top security body sent envoys to Georgia to urge Saakashvili to lift the ban and ensure a free vote.

Western diplomats have warned that such actions may bode ill for efforts to win NATO and European Union membership.

Though Saakashvili has been praised as one of the few post-Soviet leaders to champion democracy and freedom of speech, many Georgians say the media under Saakashvili are less free than under his predecessor, Eduard Sheverdnadze.

Rustavi-2, whose critical coverage of Shevardnadze's government helped fuel the 2003 Rose Revolution protests that ushered Saakashvili to power, has turned largely loyal to the government.

On Saturday, Rustavi 2 aired home decoration shows and comedy series in place of hourly news programs.

Lewis Robertson, an American who is the channel's director, said troops stormed in three hours before Saakashvili announced the state of emergency. Much of the station's equipment was destroyed and employees were tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets, he said. A woman who was nine months pregnant was forced to lie on the floor with a gun pointed at her head, he said. "It was brutal, and there was no reason for it," Robertson said. "Right now the country is getting information from one channel and one channel only -- that's not democracy, that's not freedom of speech, freedom of the press."

Many Georgians were stunned by Saakashvili's use of force and his decision to freeze news broadcasts.

"We want to know both the opinion of opposition and the official government," said Tinatin Dzhaparidze, a retired, 67-year-old piano teacher. "Only by comparing the two do you understand where the truth lies. Without that it is very hard. We got so used to knowing what's going on that now it is psychologically difficult."