Group Condemns Seizure of Maestro TV Satellite Dishes

12 Jul, 2012

Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 12 Jul

An umbrella group, uniting watchdog, election observer and media organizations, has condemned impounding of thousands of Maestro TV satellite dishes as an attempt to restrict independent media outlet, but chief prosecutor’s office said it had “sufficient evidence” to prove that Maestro TV was in “sham deal” with Bidzina Ivanishvili-affiliated companies with a purpose to “bribe voters”.

This Affects You Too, a collation of number of local civil society and media organizations, said in a statement on July 12, that decision to impound Maestro TV’s satellite dish antennas represented “an obstacle for development of an independent TV company”. The group called on the authorities to provide incontrovertible evidence proving allegations against the Maestro TV.

“With these actions [against Maestro TV] the authorities are hindering creation of pluralistic media landscape, which significantly worsens electoral environment and creates uneven conditions for competition,” This Affects You Too said in the statement. “We call on the authorities once again to take all the possible measures in order to provide citizens’ access to diverse sources of information.”

“We appeal to international organizations, diplomatic corps accredited in Georgia and observer organizations to react appropriately to the cases of restricting and hindering of media in the pre-election period,” the group said.

In early July, Maestro TV, which is through some cable providers mainly in Tbilisi and via satellite, announced about the plans to hand out for “minimal, symbolic fees” satellite dish antennas to households in the provinces as part of its campaign to broaden scope of its audience.

The announcement by Maestro TV came less than two weeks after the authorities seized on June 21 tens of thousands of satellite dishes owned by Global TV, a cable and satellite TV provider, in which brother of Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili is a co-owner. The satellite dishes were seized as part of an investigation into vote-buying scheme allegedly orchestrated by Ivanishvili and for which the billionaire opposition politician was fined with GEL 74.32 million.

The chief prosecutor’s office announced about impounding of Maestro TV’s satellite dishes on July 11, claiming that the TV channel was acting upon instructions of the Ivanishvili-affiliated companies.

Maestro TV said that its campaign “Maestro in Every Family” was financed by its financial backer Maka Asatiani, who owns 25% of shares in the TV channel. Although Maestro TV installed one satellite dish antenna in one of the villages as a PR move in lead up to the campaign, handing out of satellite dishes was not yet launched and terms under which the Maestro TV was planning to install antennas was not unveiled.

According to Maestro TV, since November, 2011 Maka Asatiani has invested in the TV channel GEL 5.18 million in addition to USD 1.5 million which was allocated for the purchase of various equipment for the TV channel. Maestro TV also said that its ad revenues in March-June, 2012 amounted to GEL 651,950.

“My goal is to make this business profitable and to make it we have to cover the entire country,” Asatiani told Maestro TV via Skype from Switzerland and denied allegations of having any links with any political party or with entities affiliated with Bidzina Ivanishvili.

In a statement on July 12 the chief prosecutor’s office laid out some of its arguments based on which it claims that Maestro TV imported “thousands” of satellite dish antennas “upon instructions” of and through “sham deal” with Elita Burji, a company affiliated with Bidzina Ivanishvili.

It said that these satellite dishes were intended for “distribution in favor of Georgian Dream” and with a purpose of “bribing voters under the scheme once already used by Global Contact Consulting” – a cable and satellite TV provider company, more known by its brand name of Global TV.

The chief prosecutor’s office claims that imported satellite dish antennas were in fact bought by Ivanishvili-affiliated companies and Maestro TV was acting only as a nominal owner. The prosecutor’s office said that part of imported satellite antennas were still bearing label of Global TV. It also said that satellite dishes were bought from the same Turkish company, which acted as a provider of satellite antennas for Global TV. The chief prosecutor’s office also said that customs clearance procedures for imported satellite dishes were carried out by some of the representatives of Elita Burji and not by representatives of Maestro TV, which represented “additional proof” that Maestro TV was in “sham deal” with Ivanishvili-affiliated companies.