Georgia challenges Russia's TV dominance

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili takes part in a live phone-in TV show on state-funded station Kanal PIK (Perviy Informatsionniy Kavkazsky, or First Caucasus News) in Tbilisi, on Jan. 25, 2011.
Irakli Gedenidze

TBILISI, Georgia — Hidden on a side street off one of Tbilisi’s main drags stands a five-story building, its courtyard buzzing with the sound of young journalists talking and smoking their way through a drizzly Georgian afternoon.

Inside, there’s a small studio with three sets — for news, sports and talk shows — cramped into the one room, and two floors of newsrooms and administration. PIK (short for Perviy Informatsioniy Kavkazkiy, or First Caucasus Information) is a small satellite television company with the biggest of ambitions — namely, challenging Moscow’s dominance in Russian-language news.

“We’re not an anti-Russian channel,” said Rob Parsons, the British head of the station. “We’ve got no negative feelings about the Russian people, Russian culture, Russian history or anything else.”

“We want to present an honest picture of this country to people who are starved of information,” he said.

Relations between Russia and Georgia have been steadily sliding since Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, which expelled a government largely made up of Soviet-era Russia-friendly officials in favor of the young Western-leaning government of Mikheil Saakashvili, now president. The 2008 war over the Georgian breakaway republic of South Ossetia severed diplomatic relations. Spats continue on a regular basis, from the weighty (such as Georgia accusing Russia of planting bombs on its territory) to the mundane (on Monday, for example, Georgia’s foreign ministry said all countries should refer to it as “Georgia,” rather than by its Russian name, “Gruziya”).

Saakashvili knows the power of the media: Winning the support of the country’s main TV channel, Rustavi 2, helped propel him to power and the broad access he provided to Western journalists during the Ossetia war also weighed in his favor.

PIK launched in January, and now boasts 275 employees. Parsons, who first visited Georgia in 1980 for PhD research on Georgian nationalism, worked for nearly a decade as the BBC’s man in Moscow, before joining Radio Free Europe’s Georgia service and then working as international affairs editor in Paris for France24, another start-up. The channel operates bureaus in Moscow, Kiev, Baku, Yerevan, Istanbul and Washington, D.C., among other cities, and is considering opening a bureau in Tehran. It is fully funded by Georgia's public broadcaster.

“[We are] like other international channels around the world — the BBC, France24, Deutsche Welle — that set out to be objective, honest, neutral TV stations,” Parsons said, “but also, in another sense, a diplomatic arm of their countries.”

That’s why PIK is beamed by satellite to a select few regions, such as Russia’s north Caucasus, its turbulent southern region. Georgia shares borders with two of the Caucausus’ dozen republics — Dagestan and Chechnya.

“The perception of Georgia in the north Caucasus has by and large been negative,” said Parsons. “It’s been negative because people living in the North Caucasus only have access through the filters of Russian media.”

It’s partly a regional approach. The channel also focuses on Iran and Turkey, because, as Parsons puts it, “Georgia and the Caucasus have long been part of a world that includes Turkey and Iran, and only recently did it fall into the Russian sphere.”

But the strategy goes beyond that. The focus on the north Caucasus is also the result of a view prevalant in Georgia — as well as, increasingly, among liberal elements in Moscow — that one day, in the not too distant future, Russia will lose the north Caucasus, either through violent struggle or by realizing the region is simply too expensive to hold on to.

“Georgia sees it as extremely important to have a constructive relationship with the north Caucasus, based on factual information,” Parsons said. Then he added, as though it’s the most average thing in the world to say: “If, in the future, Russia was to break up, it’s not in Georgia’s interest to have bad relations with the people of the north Caucasus.”

It’s a strategy shared by Georgia's government, from comments by high-profile officials like Saakashvili linking the north and south Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) to Georgia’s recent decision to institute visa-free travel for residents of the north Caucasus.

So far, the channel’s reach is small. Satellite numbers are notoriously difficult to calculate, but its website, which launched an English version last week, gets about 15,000 unique visitors a day, about half of which come from Russia.

“It’s not our main goal to counter Russian propaganda,” said Parsons. “We are providing a more honest picture of this country.”

Russia has clearly taken notice. A previous incarnation of the channel barely got off the ground last year, when it lost its satellite license after just a few days of operation to a more competitive offer by Gazprom Media, the gas giant subsidiary that has major media holdings inside Russia. The channel’s Moscow correspondent was detained last month, for working without accreditation, a notoriously difficult document to achieve when the Kremlin needs it to be.

The channel broadcasts 24 hours a day, with programming from news to prepared documentaries. It has a slick style, particularly compared to the normally staid Soviet-esque viewing offered in most post-Soviet states, including Georgia itself.

Saakashvili’s control over the media since coming to the helm of Georgia has been one of the clearest signs that he is not the ultimate democrat once painted by the West.

But Parsons insists he has total editorial control: “Since we went on the air on January 24, I have had not one single call, email, message or complaint about what we’re doing.” That includes at times critical coverage of events inside Georgia — much like Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English-language television project, which allows coverage of domestic events that never make it on to local television.

“It really is the most open objective channel in the region,” Parsons said. Considering the region, that’s not saying a lot. But it’s an interesting start.