The last thing viewers of independent channel Imedi in the troubled Caucasus nation of Georgia saw on-air late Wednesday night was special forces troops entering the Rupert Murdoch-backed station’s studio to pull the plugs.
With President Mikheil Saakashvili declaring a 15-day state of emergency in the country Wednesday, all independent media outlets are off the air. Only state-owned broadcasters still have access to transmission facilities.
Developments follow six days of peaceful demonstrations in the capital, Tbilisi, that were broken up by police with tear gas and water cannon early Wednesday. The number of those injured runs into the hundreds, reports suggest.
Imedi, which has a reputation as the most anti-government player, screened footage from hospitals depicting victims of the day’s violence. In previous days, it had also broadcast interviews with former defense minister Irakly Okruashvili, now in exile in Germany and a major opponent of Saakashvili.
Imedi is fully owned by News Corp., leaving Murdoch with a political hot potato on his hands.
Its previous owner, local oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili, sold 49% of the station to News Corp. last year and confirmed this week that the conglom had bought his remaining majority stake.
Through much of the 1990s, billionaire Patarkatsishvili was commercial director of Russia’s main station, Channel One (then called ORT). A close business partner of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, the former majority owner of ORT who is now in political exile in London, Patarkatsishvili has pledged his fortune to the overthrow of the current regime in Georgia.
Another leading independent TV station, Rustavi-2, went off the air more quietly Wednesday, announcing only that it hoped to “reconnect” with viewers when the 15-day broadcasting ban expires.