The FINANCIAL interviewed Lewis Robertson, the head of News Media Caucasus, regarding the expected international resonance the U.S company’s deterioration is likely to cause.
The FINANCIAL -- Equipment worth millions of USD was destroyed at Imedi TV as a result of the raid by the Georgian Special Forces on November 8, 2007. Severe damage to the TV station’s equipment will keep the television off the air for at least three months.
The FINANCIAL interviewed Lewis Robertson, the head of News Media Caucasus, Imedi’s parent company, regarding the expected international resonance the U.S company’s deterioration is likely to cause.
Q. In a special statement made you condemn the raid on Imedi TV by Georgian Special Forces and ask international organizations to take adequate measures in response. What are your expectations of the international resonance this incident will have caused?
A. Imedi TV station was violated completely; I witnessed people being assaulted and forcibly taken away by the ‘police.’ A nine month pregnant lady was forced to get on the floor while the Special Forces held a gun to her head, they did the same thing to the General Director of the TV station.
The statement that I made is that this should not be happening in a so-called free and democratic society. Therefore I strongly condemn the actions taken on that day. I hope the President will lift this 15 day state of emergency and cancel all restrictions on the news media. This is all about freedom of expression, free speech - fundamental things for the success and prosperity of any nation.
Q. As was reported it will take up to 3 months to bring Imedi TV back on air as all the equipment of the company has been destroyed? Will Imedi TV be ready for broadcasting by the time the 15 day emergency situation decree expires?
A. There is no equipment left! Equipment of millions of dollars of value has been broken. Many of the computers have been stolen and removed from the television station. As a result it will take months to order the equipment, get it through customs, install it and test it; unfortunately it’s not as simple as just turning back on a power switch. It’s a very complicated business. 3 months is the minimum amount of time it will take, it may even take longer.
Another problem we are facing is that we cannot even enter the TV station to see what additional damages have been done. We need to get our engineers into the building as soon as possible.
We’ll do our best to get back on air as soon as we can before the elections. If the government lifts the state of emergency soon then we hope to get back on air a lot quicker. We own TV stations in different parts of Eastern Europe and we may be using some of their equipment to get back on air.
Q. In an interview with EurasiaNet, you reported that riot police raided Imedi studios, destroying equipment and confiscating computers and hard drives. "They [special forces] pushed people around and used tear gas," you said. "They did not present a warrant; neither did they offer any explanation." Was the raid really a completely unexpected development?
A. We had received a phone call that we might be a target but we had already heard that. When it happened it was a big shock. Around 150 people were in the building at that time. We were in the middle of a newscast when several hundreds of Special Forces men broke in.
I think at present our employees are safe as it would be extraordinarily foolish, beyond foolishness even, to do anything to any Imedi employees. Tomorrow I’m meeting the U.S State Secretary Assistant and the U.S ambassador and so if anybody is attacked then there will undoubtedly be a response from America. I just came from the British Ambassador’s residence and I would say the international response will be overwhelmingly against this government in such a case.
Q. Have the New York-based News Corporation officials issued a statement on the November 7 takeover of its station?
A. The Chairman of News Corporation did an interview with the Associated Press and also condemns the fact. The Chairman is much concerned and wants only what is best for the TV station.
People could have been killed, I was right in the middle and I witnessed it. People were terrified and crying. The forces did what they wanted to do, they wanted to threaten our reporters and they did it. Special Forces even broke the windows of our employees’ cars.
News Corporation is a worldwide company running the newspaper, TV business; they also have radio stations, outdoor billboards, and magazines. All this is based on the freedom of expression and the ability to say what you want when you want.
Q. Imedi’s founder Badri Patarkatsishvili recently handed over his shares in the company to News Corp., as for the legislative side, does Imedi work in accordance with U.S or Georgian law? What’s the evaluation of the international and local lawyers regarding the recent developments?
A. The management is totally under the control of News Corporation. It was really the fact that Patarkatsishvili didn’t want to fund the opposition and at the same time have control over a TV station. He tried to separate those two by giving us total control from the management standpoint.
We’re in the country of Georgia and we obey the law of Georgia but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have law firms in America that represent us.
The judicial system in Georgia is a mess. It’s being worked on and I applaud that but it’s still not very good.
Q. What’s the division of shares at Imedi at present between Patarkatsishvili and News Corporation?
A. Nobody really knows how much New Corporation owns at Imedi and we’re not going to talk about it. There’s been some different versions published in the media, but no official statement has been made.
Q. It’s said in the statement spread by journalists via Skype, that even foreign TV channels are being blocked in Georgia. What’s your comment regarding the issue?
A. The Imedi journalists love their job, they love Georgia; they’re journalists and they love the freedom to speak. So I appreciate the efforts they are making to find alternative sources to get the word out to their listeners.
Q. How intensively is News Corp. using its own international media sources to get the word out to the world?
A. There’s an informational vacuum from the standpoint of not being able to broadcast on TV or radio locally excluding Associated Press, you [The FINANCIAL], CNN, Reuters, and Russia Today. I can’t remember how many phone calls I get every day. So, there’s no informational vacuum internationally. Although the Georgian government has restricted information for the local population.
Q. The very first precedent of News Corp. business closure was followed by a Murdoch-produced BSkyB Shares fall on the London Stock Exchange by 2.5%. Do you see a direct link between the closure of Imedi and News Corp. shares dropping on LSE?
A. I have no idea, I don’t know whether it’s true or not.
Q. Murdoch multimedia group entered Imedi capital in the past year. In late October, it acquired controlling interest of the channel from the businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, who incidentally has expressed willingness to financially help the Georgian opposition. However, as stated in a conclusion of the transaction, by the head of News Corporation Europe Marty Pompadur, the acquisition of the TV channel Imedi was “not a political step.” How do you see Imedi TV and radio’s continued broadcasting in the future?
A. We’ll continue our objective, fair and professional broadcasting! Imedi is not a pro-opposition TV company. We report the news factually and provide ‘both sides’ of any story. The fact that the government chose not to come to Imedi was their decision. They’ve been invited many times, I’ve written letters to the President but they don’t want to. However that doesn’t mean we won’t put the Speaker for Parliament on our TV station. If we were a pro-opposition TV station we wouldn’t care to even show the President’s speech.
I think the raid made by the Georgian Special Forces on Imedi TV will affect the country’s economy very badly.
As we say in America - the cat is out of the bag!