Changes in TV 25 prior to parliamentary elections - საერთაშორისო გამჭვირვალობა - საქართველო

Changes in TV 25 prior to parliamentary elections

20 January, 2016


On 11 January 2016, after a 10-day pause, the news service of TV 25 resumed its operation. The reason for suspending information programmes and the political talk show Dialogue was the dismissal of the entire information service staff of the channel by its management on 31 December 2015. Later, however, the management changed its decision and dismissed only journalists Nino Kheladze, Jaba Ananidze and Irma Zoidze and the head of the information service, Maia Merkviladze. The dismissed employees of the channel received the dismissal order on 11 January 2016.

The decision made by the channel owners and its management was preceded by a briefing held by Maia Merkviladze on 29 December 2015 where the head of the information service accused the management and the owners of the TV channel of attempts to interfere in the editorial independence.

The conflict which caused tension at the TV station ensued from the story about the detention of an employee of the Ajara Chamber of Commerce and Industry which was aired by TV 25 on 14 December. The detainee is a family member of the channel’s chief director. The day after the story was aired, channel director Niaz Kontselidze verbally abused and threatened Maia Merkviladze because of airing the story. The tensions prevented the channel’s daily news programme from being aired at 17.00 hours. The head of the information service demanded from TV Channel Director Giorgi Surmanidze to address the issue. In response, Surmanidze dismissed the entire staff of the channel’s information service 15 days later.

Two days before being dismissed, at the briefing held on 29 December, Maia Merkviladze, head of the channel’s information service, said that the channel management and Jemal Verdzadze, owner of 51 percent of the company shares, were forcing her to take two months of paid vacation. According to Merkviladze, Verdzadze had never shown any interest in the TV channel’s human resource management, so she though it was suspicious that the businessman was stepping up his activities.

Verdzadze’s activeness aroused suspicions in another dismissed journalist. Jaba Ananidze recalls that he met Verdzadze in June 2015 on the latter’s initiative. According to Ananidze, at the time, one of the channel owners asked him not to make an investigative film called Business Privileged by Government. Jaba Ananidze said that, after he refused, Verdzadze tried to interfere with the film content, specifically, he asked the journalist to use milder tone when talking about Giorgi Chkonia – a businessman with close connections to the Ajara Government. The film was aired by TV 25 in July 2015.

Transparency International Georgia tried to verify the information provided by the journalist with Jemal Verdzadze. Verdzadze denied attempting to put pressure on the journalist but confirmed that the meeting took place and that he asked the question about the film. Asked, how he found out about the preparation of a film of this content, Verdzadze said that he had received this information from the channel employees as well as other people, which had been the reason why he became interested.

At a meeting with representatives of non-governmental organizations, Giorgi Surmanidze made a statement concerning the dismissal of Jaba Ananidze, Irma Zoidze and Nino Kheladze: he said that, lately, he was not happy with way the Dialogue talk show, hosted by Ananidze, worked; as for news programme host Nino Kheladze, he once again offered her to resume working at the channel.

The director’s arguments are unacceptable to the journalists dismissed from the channel and all four of them intend to defend their rights in court. The journalists will file a lawsuit with Batumi City Court in the coming days.

The dismissed journalists have called the decision made by the management and the owners on 31 December politically motivated. According to Maia Merkviladze, the plan to dismiss them from work was devised long before the incident: “It seems, the work of an information service free from political and owners’ influence during the election year did not serve the owners’ interests,” Maia Merkviladze said to the representatives of Transparency International Georgia.

In turn, TV 25 Director Giorgi Surmanidze explained his decision to dismiss the four employees of the TV channel by his wish to defuse the tension. He also said that the person who verbally abused Maia Merkviladze was also dismissed along with these four journalists. Giorgi Surmanidze categorically ruled out political motives, characterizing the incident as purely personal. According to Surmanidze, he had been involved in a conflict with Maia Merkviladze before as well and did not make his decision solely because of the confrontation that occurred on 15 December.

The now former head of the information service, however, said that she had the difference of opinions with the management because of rebroadcasting the signal of the Media Union Objective – known for its anti-Western sentiments – on TV 25, the reduction of the number of news programmes as well as an unsubstantiated withdrawal of TV 25 from the Georgian Association of Regional Broadcasters. TV 25 started broadcasting the Media Union Objective’s signal in 2010. At the time, the regional broadcaster allocated six hours of airtime to Objective. In 2012, the contract was amended and Objective took up 16 hours of TV 25’s airtime.


Politicized process of changing TV 25’s owners

According to the Public Registry’s information, currently, TV 25 has two owners: the TV channel’s General Director Giorgi Surmanidze owns 49 percent of the channel and businessman Jemal Verdzadze has the controlling interest of 51 percent.

In 2012, several months prior to the parliamentary elections, TV 25 was sold. The information about selling the TV channel was published by the newspaper Batumelebi. On 24 February 2012, according to the Public Registry’s information, the identity of the channel owners and the proportion of share ownership did not change. At the time, TV 25 still had three founders: Giorgi Surmanidze owned 50 percent, Merab Merkviladze and Malkhaz Verdzadze owned 25 percent each. Among the founders, only Giorgi Surmanidze spoke to the media. In his interview with Batumelebi, he categorically refuted the information about selling the TV channel which was obtained by the newspaper. The suspicion about selling the channel appeared after close relatives of then TV founders, on 24 February 2012, received property worth approximately USD 2m in Tbilisi and Batumi based on the application submitted by the founders’ relatives to the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia and on the order issued by Levan Varshalomidze. On 24 February 2012, the state transferred property of 1,100 sq. m in Tbilisi and Batumi into the ownership of Meri Kartsivadze (Malkhaz Verdzadze’s mother-in-law), Leila Mitaishvili (Giorgi Surmanidze’s cousin) and Irakli Krichashvili (Merab Merkviladze’s relative). It took less than an hour to register the property. The procedure was carried out after working hours (from 19.00 to 20.00 hours). The owners of the channel categorically denied any connection to this property.

In the Public Registry records, the information about selling the shares of TV 25 appeared in September 2012 (dated 24 February 2012): previous owners transferred their shares to businessman Jemal Verdzadze and Levan Kardava, candidate of the National Movement from a single-seat district, 50 percent each, while previous owner Giorgi Surmanidze remained responsible for the management. On 30 October 2012, Jemal Verdzadze became the owner of 100 percent of shares of TV 25. In November 2012, another change appeared in the Public Registry records: Giorgi Surmanidze regained the ownership of 49 percent of shares of the channel, while Jemal Verdzadze retained 51 percent. In conversation with Transparency International Georgia, Giorgi Surmanidze said that he bought out the shares from Jemal Verdzadze.

Investigation of property transfer and statements about pressure

After the parliamentary elections, in December 2012, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia started an investigation of crimes under Article 332 (abuse of power) and Article 194 (legalization of unlawful income) of the Criminal Code of Georgia concerning the transfer of ownership of state property to the relatives of the company TV 25 founders for a symbolic price, through the direct sale procedure. At the same time, at the request of the Prosecutor’s Office at by the decision of the court, the bank accounts of TV 25 owners and the property transferred into the ownership of their relatives were frozen.

At the same time, Giorgi Surmanidze said that the investigative agencies put psychological pressure on him and Jemal Verdzadze with regard to the case: “It resembled a street argument. They were sorting things out with us in the corridor. We were supposed to name Lasha Natsvlishvili, Davit Chkhatarashvili, and Vano Merabishvili and say that these three people bought TV 25 before the 2012 elections. I was saying that I had not even seen any of these people but they said that they knew that we did not know that these three bought it but they knew it and it was a public demand that these people be named,” TV 25 founder said.

Giorgi Surmanidze also said that the photos of his family members were placed before him during the questioning and that he was threatened. According to him, Jemal Verdzadze was shown the photo of his son and told “that he frequented this specific café and whether or not [Jemal Verdzadze] was afraid that his son might get into a fight or something might happen to him”.

After this statement, the Public Defender called on the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate but, according to the lawyer of Surmanidze and Verdzadze, Gagi Mosiashvili, the current status of the investigative measures is unknown. Because of the freezing of personal accounts, the channel founders appealed to the [European] Court [of Human Rights] in Strasbourg.

Transparency International Georgia, along with other non-governmental organizations, published a statement concerning the charges brought against Giorgi Surmanidze.

TV 25 has been operating as a regional TV company since 1995. Under Aslan Abashidze’s rule, on 19 February 2000, officers of the Ajara security services at the time forced the heads of TV 25, as they stated themselves, to give away the controlling interest of the TV company as a result of which the company became the property of persons with direct and close ties with Aslan Abashidze. After the Rose Revolution, the founders regained the ownership of the company.

TV 25 came under the spotlight several times. For the first time, as early as when it found itself without an office after the Medea Hotel was sold, then when the tax encashment was imposed on the channel’s account and the argument continued in court. In 2010, based on the decision made by Parliament of Georgia, TV 25’s tax arrears were annulled as a result of a financial amnesty.

Currently, news programmes are being aired by TV 25. In parallel, for 16 hours each day, the channel transmits the signal of the Media Union Objective. TV 25 is set to change its address soon, moving into the building of its owner, Jemal Verdzadze, on Loria Street in Batumi.

Transparency International Georgia’s position is as follows:

  • It is extremely important that the alleged psychological pressure on TV 25 founders is investigated. Protracting the process raises questions with regard to the absence of the will to complete the investigation.
  • The Prosecutor’s Office should in a timely manner investigate the selling of property for GEL 1 to the relatives of TV 25 [founders]. It needs to be established whether there is a direct connection between giving up on the shares of TV 25, LLC and transferring state property to the founders’ relatives for GEL 1. The failure to complete the investigative process might significantly affect the work and development of the channel;
  • The channel’s management should clearly explain to the public the reasons for dismissing the information service head as well as the host of the political talk show and other journalists – covering a story connected to a family member of the channel employee indicates high working standard of the information service, correspondingly, it is unclear why the management decided to dismiss the staff rather than settle the conflict in a different way; the channel management and the owners should respect the principle of editorial independence and should not interfere in the process of decision making when journalists are carrying out their duties;
  • The Prosecutor’s Office should in a timely manner investigate the selling of property for GEL 1 to the relatives of TV 25 [founders]. It needs to be established whether there is a direct connection between giving up on the shares of TV 25, LLC and transferring state property to the founders’ relatives for GEL 1. The failure to complete the investigative process might significantly affect the work and development of the channel;
  • It is extremely important that the alleged psychological pressure on TV 25 founders is investigated. Protracting the process raises questions with regard to the absence of the will to complete the investigation.
Author: „საერთაშორისო გამჭვირვალობა – საქართველო“