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Georgia: US-Funded Media Outlet Grapples with Controversy

Staff at RFE/RL opposed content deal between the Georgian service and an opposition TV channel.

The Georgian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, currently in a dispute with management over a plan to affiliate with a partisan TV network.

An in-house controversy within Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is spilling into the public following the reported refusal of the international news network’s Georgian service to form a partnership with Georgia’s private television stations. The proposal has raised the Georgian staff’s concerns that association with highly partisan local stations could cast a pall on the credibility of RFE/RL’s reporting in Georgia.

The United States government-funded RFE/RL has faced numerous challenges to its illuminating coverage of the post-Soviet world, with governments repeatedly trying to yank the network’s broadcasts off the air. But in Georgia’s case, the ongoing trouble appears to stem from what is seen locally as an ill-advised management plan.

The Georgian bureau has reportedly taken a stand against pressure from the RFE/RL’s executives to affiliate with Rustavi2 channel, media watchdog BBG Watch reported on January 22, citing unnamed sources in Washington and Tbilisi. Rustavi2 is widely valued in Georgia as a key source for a critical look at the government’s work, but the station is also associated with opposition group, the United National Movement and its leader, former President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Sources told Eurasianet.org that second option for affiliation was Rustavi2 effective antipode, Imedi, a station seen as loyal to the governing party, the Georgian Dream.

Fearing that association with these stations would undermine the credibility of their work, staffers at the Georgian service have united in their opposition to the affiliation plans and remain locked in a standoff with the network’s Prague-based management, BBG Watch reported.

Rustavi2’s executives dismissed the reports, saying that the only communication on affiliation they had with RFE/RL was a year ago and was related to airing one of the network’s Georgian-language shows.

But several sources at the RFE/RL privately confirmed reports of the internal dispute over Rustavi2 plans to Eurasianet, though they declined to speak publicly. Other sources with a familiarity to the situation have a different perspective, saying that the dispute is about programming and human resources decisions, rather than affiliation plans.

The RFE/RL press office also declined to comment. “I am not authorized to comment on internal staff matters at RFE/RL. Out of respect for our journalists, it is the company policy not to comment,” spokesperson Joanna Levison told Eurasianet in an emailed response.

The Georgian service of the RFE/RL has long been a rare source of fair and balanced broadcasting in Georgia’s highly partisan media environment. The reasons for alleged attempts to link the RFE/RL broadcasts to Georgian channels, known for their political fealties, remain unclear. RFE/RL Vice President and Editor-in-Chief Nenad Pejic, who reportedly is driving the push to link up the Georgian service with Rustavi2, has not responded to Eurasianet’s inquiry about the reasons for affiliation plans.

The RFE/RL management could be trying to find an alternative way for its Georgian broadcasts to reach a nationwide audience. Last year, Georgian Public Broadcasting Company dropped two RFE/RL shows that had been aired by the company’s flagship station, Channel 1.

As Georgia’s governing party, the Georgian Dream, has a sway over public TV’s management, many local media observers criticized the removal of RFE/RL’s freewheeling shows as an attempt to restrict criticism of the government on national airwaves.

Update: January 24, 2018, 3:51 p.m. EST — The heading, subheading and article have been updated to reflect changes in the ongoing controversy at RFE/RL's Georgian service. 

Georgia: US-Funded Media Outlet Grapples with Controversy

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