TBILISI, Georgia — When a couple of hundred masked and heavily armed riot troops stormed Tbilisi’s Imedi TV on a freezing night in November, forcing staff to the floor at gunpoint and pushing the muzzle of an assault rifle against the general manager’s forehead, CEO Lewis Robertson lost any illusions about the country’s fledging democracy.
The urbane 60-year old American who runs Imedi TV for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. — which holds a 49% stake but has power of attorney over owner Badri Patarkatsishvili’s majority stake while the Georgian runs for president — thought the country supported freedom of speech.
On Nov. 7 that belief disappeared after an armored personnel carrier burst through the iron-barred gates at Imedi TV’s studios in the Georgian capital and troops swarmed inside.
“Two hundred masked men burst into the station brandishing assault rifles, shouting and violently herding staff into the news room,” Robertson recalled Dec. 7, the day Imedi reopened after a month of government-enforced closure.
“Employees were beaten with batons, and rubber bullets and tear gas were fired at staff and local people who quickly turned out to support the station having seen what was happening live on air.”
Dramatic footage of armed men marching into the news room was flashed around the world as anchor Giorgi Targamadze relayed news of the shock assault live to viewers of the evening news. It was the same day that President Mikhail Saakashvili had cracked down on anti-government demonstrations and declared a state of emergency.
“I told viewers to note what was going on because the government had blamed us for inciting riots,” says Targamadze, Imedi’s 34-year-old head of news and current affairs. “I warned people not to come to the station because it was dangerous.”
Inside the station newsroom reporters were herded into a control room. Many, including a terrified pregnant woman were forced to the ground at gunpoint.
Broadcast monitors and feeds in a control room were smashed up or stolen. The station’s telephone and Internet control panels — tucked away in a basement corridor — were ripped apart. Staff and locals who had rushed to the station to protest the assault despite Tagarmadze’s plea were beaten, shot with rubber bullets and tear-gassed.
Robertson could scarcely believe what he was seeing that night.
“We have a young team here who all believe in freedom of speech and in what they are doing. Many of them could have been killed. One girl was so scared she was literally shaking like a leaf. When I went to hold her, to try to calm her, I physically could not, so violent was the shuddering,” Robertson says.
The troops pulled the plug on Imedi TV: A week later a court ruling suspended the station’s license and froze its assets.
Georgia’s second largest commercial station, Rustavi 2 was also taken off air — albeit without the help of armed troops — for the duration of the station of emergency. Considered more government friendly, it went back on air Nov. 16 when Saakashvili lifted the order.
This prompted mass demonstrations in Tbilisi on Nov. 25 in which upward of 30,000 people took to the streets to demand Imedi’s return and that Saakashvili respect freedom of speech.
Only after Saakashvili called a snap presidential election for Jan. 5 and stepped down as head of state to start his campaign, did acting president Nino Burdzhanadze reopen Imedi, stung by criticism from the west.
On Dec. 7 Robertson and his staff of 120 reporters and some 380 other employees returned to the station for the first time in 29 days.
Only four staffers refused to come back, including news anchor Inga Grigolia who subsequently grilled Saakashvili about Imedi’s closure on rival station Rustavi 2.
Walking around the station Robertson, a tall, lean man wearing a leather bomber jacket, Georgia Bulldogs football cap and glasses is warmly greeted by newsroom staff.
Young, mostly female journalists welcome him as he enters the newsroom. Canteen ladies reach across their snack counter to shake his hand. Security guards politely acknowledge him.
Robertson, whose TV career stretches back 40 years to when he worked as a producer at WAGA, the CBS affiliate in Atlanta — state capital of the other Georgia — came to Imedi TV and its sister radio station, just over a year ago.
The station, which turns 5 in March, was already a ratings winner and its staff cohesive and enthusiastic.
November’s violent assault, which caused millions of dollars worth of damage has only increased the resolve of Imedi staffers to uphold freedom of expression.
“People in this country trust this television station,” Robertson says. “We would rather be trusted than first in the ratings any day of the week.” Before it was taken off air Imedi TV was achieving a 39% national audience share, he says.
Now the station has to start from scratch. The Georgian government has informally agreed to pay for the damages but that does not include some $3 million lost advertising revenue.
The station’s technicians promise to get a rudimentary news and schedules service on air “within days” but a full resumption of service is, Robertson says, “many months away.”
Imedi’s commitment to editorial independence remains and all candidates in Georgia’s presidential elections, including Imedi founder Patarkatsishvili, can expect the same grilling from Imedi journalists.
But the experience has, unsurprisingly, left its trace on Robertson.
“At the time I was not worried, only later I started shaking. You read about it in newspapers and see it on the news but it never happens to you – and then one day it does,” he says.
Robertson thought that News Corp.’s role in Imedi would keep it safe. He was wrong.
“I’ve not spoken to Rupert Murdoch,” Robertson said, “but he issued a statement two days after the assault that he was disgusted and very upset that a television station in a democratic country was put out of business because the government did not like the way it was broadcasting.”
Robertson has his work cut out now: get back on air, get back in the broadcasting fray and get back lost advertisers.
For a man with such a long track record in TV and with such an obviously loyal staff, it is a task to which he is taking with humor, resolve and gusto.