Georgia station staff cite safety fears

Journalists at Imedi TV — the News Corp.-controlled independent channel in Georgia — took the station off the air Wednesday, citing official pressure and personal safety fears as tensions rose ahead of an early January snap presidential election in the Caucasian country.

Georgy Targamadze, Imedi TV’s head of news and current affairs, told viewers in a live primetime broadcast, “Each of us and members of our families have been subjected to official pressure and blackmail.”

Surrounded by members of his newsroom team, Targamadze added: “There are no security guarantees for our workers … we want to dissociate ourselves from dirty political games.”

Move comes just hours after six journalists at the station announced plans to quit and two weeks after Imedi TV returned to the air following an officially enforced monthlong closure and a state of emergency imposed in Georgia by President Mikhail Saakashvili in early November.

Saakashvili had accused the station of promoting sedition in the politically troubled former Soviet state. The station is owned by Georgian businessman and opposition activist Badri Patarkatsishvili and operated by News Corp., which has a 49% stake.

Patarkatsishvili is running for president against Saakashvili in elections scheduled for Jan. 5. Earlier this week, Georgia’s deputy state prosecutor Nika Gvaramia accused Patarkatsishvili of plotting an armed uprising following the elections.

Patarkatsishvili claims the authorities are planning to assassinate him.

Targamadze, Imedi TV’s head of news, said the political intrigues were increasing pressures on station staff.

Imedi TV had become a target for “pre-election political mudslinging” making it impossible for staff to work safely at the station, he said in the broadcast statement.

Targamadze said Imedi TV staffers were worried that the station did not have a clear legal status, and suggested that one possible solution was for News Corp. to take over 100% of the shares.

News Corp. took control of Patarkatsishvili’s 51% stake in late October under a power of attorney valid for 12 months.

Earlier this month, Lewis Robertson, CEO Imedi TV/News Caucasus, told Daily Variety the power of attorney gave News Corp. full operational control of the station for a year.

Georgian authorities have disputed the legality of the move and insist the station is still under Patarkatsishvili’s control. A News Corp. spokesman said the company had no comment.

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