On August 8, the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) considered the actions of Maestro TV against Silknet, a cable operator, on the Must-carry principle and refused to satisfy Maestro TV’s claim. Instead, the GNCC called upon Maestro TV to provide the cable operator with all the requested equipment in order to be carried.
Maestro TV lawyer Dimitri Gabunia assessed the resolution as senseless based upon the fact that legislation passed pertaining to the ‘Must-carry’ principle doesn’t obligate news programming channels to supply cable operators with equipment necessary for broadcasting.
On the other hand, Silknet Chief Executive Officer Levan Buchukuri exclaimed that half of its subscribers can start watching Maestro TV anytime, meanwhile others can only watch once the cable operator receive the necessary equipment; he added that the only reason Maestro TV isn’t carried by Silknet so far is the channel’s unwillingness to cooperate.
The Must-Carry principle, which was launched on August 1, was adopted by the Georgian Parliament on June 29. The new legislation requires cable TV providers to carry all channels with news programming. The government has put this legislation into force for 60 days and the requirements will expire just before Election Day.
The ‘Must-carry’ legislation has continued the long-standing enmity between Maestro TV and Silknet. The dispute started on August 2 when Silknet, one of the most prominent Georgian cable operators, published an official statement refusing to carry opposition-minded Maestro TV in their broadcasting list unless the channel makes an official appeal.
In the same day, Bacho Kikabidze, Maestro TV’s general director, noted that the only company to which they would not make an appeal to carry their channel is Silknet, unless it apologies for causing the previous longstanding conflict between the two companies.
Maestro TV is one of the three most popular oppositional channels that broadcast in the capital. The others are Kavkasia and Channel 9.
The cable operator Silknet is the daughter company of the Silk Road Group, a Georgian conglomerate with business interests in transportation, telecommunications, banking and property development.
According to official data, Silknet has 65,000 subscribers in twenty-three towns across the country.
In the past, Silknet not unlike other cable operators has long been refusing to carry Maestro TV. Asked why Silknet was not carrying Maestro TV, Silk Road Group Chairman Giorgi Ramishvili responded: “We will switch it on when it [Maestro TV] behaves properly… If there is a constructive dialogue, instead of pressure, every problem can be resolved.”
With the Must-Carry rules in force, Silknet demanded special equipment from the channel to carry Maestro TV. The channel officials refused to fulfill the request and Mamuka Glonti, the Co-Owner of Maestro TV, expressed willingness to appeal to the Georgian National Communications Commission to take measures against Silknet if the cable operator did not fulfill its obligations by August 3 and include Maestro. Finally, the confrontation was re-directed to the GNCC which shared the position of the cable operator.
It seems that the rivalry between Maestro TV and cable operator Silknet will further deepen, but it is hardly imaginable that the main reason of such misunderstanding is demand for ‘appeal’ or ‘equipment’. It is more likely that the ‘Must-carry’ framework itself forces two organizations to confront one another.
The ‘Must-carry’ rules were first used in Canada in the 1970s and later in the US in 1997. The whole idea of the principle was the willingness of society to provide an electorate with comprehensive and diverse sources of information. Thus, every member of society could make informed and intelligent choices.
A lack of an alternative point of view has been seen by some Georgian NGOs, Transparency International, Amnesty International, the US former Ambassador to Georgia George Bass and other officials, as a big problem in the Georgian regions during the pre-election period. Consequently, these organizations and individuals have been supporting the idea of implementing the ‘Must-carry’ rules to provide Georgian voters in the regions with different approaches and information.
Originally, the Georgian government was opposing this by emphasizing that it is “meddling in private businesses.” However, on June 5 the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton visited Batumi and called on the government to implement the ‘must-carry’ principle. Consequently, the ruling party was forced to give up.
Silknet’s father company–the Silk Road Group, is closely tied with the government; on the other hand, Maestro TV is one of the most popular and influential opposition channels associated with the main opposition political force the Georgian Dream Coalition and, particularly, Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
By not allowing the opposition media to receive coverage in the regions, the government is attempting to maintain the status quo outside Tbilisi. Meanwhile, opposition forces believe that bringing a critical opinion to the regions will help win over the hearts of the undecided voters.
While the conflict between such heavyweights remains unsolved, it becomes clear that the issue with Maestro TV and the Silknet cable operator isn’t just a business misunderstanding and has deeper political overtones.