March 1, 2000
His Excellency Eduard Shevardnadze
President of Georgia
via fax: 011- 99532-999-200
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urges you to order an investigation into the apparently illegal takeover of the independent television station Telekanal 25 in the Ajarian capital, Batumi.
Late on the evening of February 19, former Batumi mayor and current Georgian parliamentarian Aslan Smirba forced three of Telekanal 25’s four owners to sign over 75 percent of the station’s shares to Mikhail Gagoshidze, whom CPJ’s sources describe as an unknown third party chosen by Smirba to be the station’s nominal owner.
Earlier in the day, Smirba, a close associate of Ajarian president Aslan Abashidze, had been involved in a physical altercation with Telekanal 25’s business director, Atandil Gvasaliya, in front of the building that houses the station.
According to CPJ’s sources in the region, Smirba told the station owners that he would “put a bullet through someone’s head” if they refused to transfer their shares to Gagoshidze. In an attempt to legitimize the transaction, Smirba then forced the owners to accept a payment of US$50,000.
Telekanal 25 is the only independent station in the region and the sole alternative to the state-owned channel, Ajaria TV. Smirba, who has often criticized Telekanal 25’s coverage, had made several previous attempts to coerce the station’s owners into selling their shares. He also claimed that Telekanal 25 owed him approximately US$56,000 for a 1996 payment that he had made to Ajarian official Leonid Zhgenti in return for granting the station permission to broadcast.
Smirba provided no evidence to back up this allegation, despite having promised that he would take no further steps to acquire Telekanal 25 until the legitimacy of his claim could be proven. All of the station’s journalists and most of its technicians have since resigned in protest.
As a nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending the rights of our colleagues around the world, CPJ is greatly concerned that the forced sale amounts to an Ajarian government attempt to takeover the station. We ask that you do everything in your power to investigate the buyout of Telekanal 25, and to ensure that independent media may operate in an open and free environment throughout Georgia.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your comments.
Ann K. Cooper