Independent station could be back this week

LONDON Troubled Georgian independent television station Imedi may be back on the air this week after the man claiming to be its new owner pledged editorial independence to newsroom staff.

Joseph Kay, a distant relative of station founder, businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili who died from a suspected heart attack in February, met with station staff in Georgian capital Tbilisi last week.

Kay, a Georgian-born American citizen who according to reports used to be known as Kakalashvili, claims he acquired majority ownership of the channel last November, although Patarkatsishvili’s widow, Inna Gudavadze, disputes that.

In a meeting at Imedi’s studios March 25, Kay agreed to staff demands not to use the station for political ends. Apart from a two-week period, the station has been off the air since early November after being caught up in political turmoil and violence that surrounded a snap presidential election held Jan. 5.

According to reports, Kay told staff: “This television station will be neither pro-opposition nor pro-government; this is a television station that should broadcast in line with the principle of freedom of speech.”

His remarks were reportedly welcomed by Bidzina Baratashvili, station executive director, who says it paved the way for Imedi to go back on air with test broadcasts skedded to begin April 1, with a full schedule planned some 10 days later.

Imedi has been run under a management agreement by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. since last October, when it bought a 49% stake in the station from Patarkatsishvili. Kay has reportedly suspended that agreement.

Earlier last week News Corp. local exec Lewis Robertson said the company would not comment until Kay had proven his ownership.

Patarkatsishvili’s family disputes Kay’s ownership and says he has falsified documents. The family plans to challenge his claim in court, suggesting that even if the station does soon go back on the air, its problems are not yet over.

Imedi was caught up in Georgia’s political turmoil last November when antigovernment protestors clashed in the streets of Tbilisi with riot police and troops, in the worst violence in the small country since the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Accused by President Mikhail Saakashvili’s government of fomenting revolt, the station was stormed by heavily armed troops and shut down for nearly a month.

It reopened early December only to close again just before the new year after further allegations it was being used as a political tool.

Saakashvili won re-election by a narrow majority Jan. 5, although the opposition says it will use parliamentary elections due in May to challenge his authority.

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