Journalists of the TV channel, together with a group of viewers and supporters, gathered in front of the TV headquarters around mid-day today, and marched to the Government Administration building, holding placards reading: “Hands off Iberia!” and “Iberia tells the Truth.”
The protesters stressed they wanted their voices to be heard by the Georgian Dream government, with Archil Gamzardia, one of the anchors, saying “the times when television stations are shut down and seized for their criticism have to come to an end.”
Business at stake?
Iberia TV is owned by the Omega Group, a business conglomerate. The news of pressure on the station were first announced by Zaza Okuashvili of the Omega Group. He claimed the decision of the Ministry of Finance to freeze the operations of the Omega Group’s cigarette production company – Omega Group Tobacco (OGT) – was an attempt to silence the TV station.
Okuashvili is a member of the Adjara Supreme Council from the Alliance of Patriots, a radical right-wing outfit. He told the reporters on September 7 that “a gang disguised as state institutions” was using “financial and other instruments” to cut the main source of funding of tan independent media.
The Finance Ministry denied the allegations, saying the decision taken by the OGT was related to its accrued debt. The Minsitry explained that over the last three years Okuashvili’s company had accumulated GEL 51.7 million debt in outstanding excise taxes. The Ministry also said the company has previously requested postponement of enforcement 11 times and their appeals were approved on all of these occasions.
Finance Minister Ivane Machavariani further clarified that OGT broke the agreement on rescheduled payments twice. “We offered them several versions of the debt repayment schedule, we also had meetings with them, but the company is unable to offer an acceptable schedule,” he said.
Zaza Okuashvili’s wife, MP Nato Chkheidze, insists the authorities offered the couple to give up the channel in exchange for resolving their financial problems. “The reason, voiced indirectly, was that Iberia TV is more problematic than [UNM-leaning] Rustavi 2 [for the authorities],” stressed Chkheidze, who represents the Alliance of Patriots in the Parliament of Georgia.
Tapes – and lies?
Two days later, an audio tape, featuring what appears to be a phone conversation of Zaza Okuashvili with a man identified as Levan Kipiani, emerged in the media. According to the audio, Kipiani, who served as the Sports and Youth Affairs Minister in 2012-2015, is offering the TV owner to “give up the TV in exchange for [resolving] the financial problems.”
Members of the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia maintain that the TV owners are using the TV station to protect their business interests.
Deputy Parliament Speaker Tamar Chugoshvili commented on the matter on September 9, saying the OGT owners were “labelling their financial problems as the authorities’ pressure [against media].”
“If the company owners have financial problems, they have to act like other businesses and not abuse their connections with media outlets,” Chugoshvili added.
Finance Minister Ivane Machavariani echoed Chugoshvili’s points, telling reporters on September 10 that it is “unacceptable and disgraceful” that Iberia TV owners “are using their media outlet as instrument of blackmail.”
“No one can blackmail the state, this is people’s money and they have to return it to the budget,” he noted.