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Gazprom Media, the largest Russian state-owned media holding, has said they are to begin broadcasting in Georgia. The move has been criticised by some, with a petition calling it a part of a ‘Russian hybrid war against Georgia’ and calling on Georgia’s TV regulator to prevent them from broadcasting in the country gaining over 3,000 signatures.
According to NTV-Plus, a digital satellite television service provider, viewers in Georgia will be offered two packages of channels: the first of which includes about 50 Russian and other foreign channels, and the second one more than 90.
NTV-Plus, a subsidiary of the Gazprom Media, announced on Tuesday that they were to begin broadcasting in Georgia. The company received a broadcasting licence in 2016, the state regulator, the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC), has confirmed.
The GNCC previously allowed TV channels to broadcast based only on a licence. However, GNCC now claims that NTV-Plus needs to register in Georgia’s business registry, otherwise their licence could be revoked.
‘A social mission’
In moving to Georgia, NTV-Plus will become the ‘first domestic operator of digital and satellite TV, which will operate outside the Russian Federation under its own brand’, NTV-Plus claimed. Their channel is already available on Georgian cable TV services.
Mikhail Dyomin, the General Director of NTV-Plus, said that ‘geographical expansion’ is one of their strategic priorities, adding that they see expanding to Georgia as ‘not only business’, but also a ‘social mission’.
Natia Kuprashvili, a veteran media personality and professor at Tbilisi State University, told Liberali that NTV-Plus’ entry into Georgia is a ‘purely political decision’, and it’s ‘clear that this has nothing to do with commercial interests’.
Kuprashvili said the move is ‘alarming’, given that ‘data shows that audience in Georgia (mostly non-Georgian speaking) are turning to foreign channels, the majority of which are Russian’.
Tamar Kintsurashvili from the Media Development Foundation, a Tbilisi based NGO, said that banning NTV from entering Georgia is not a solution to ‘Russian propaganda’. She told Liberali that the government should communicate properly in order to target propaganda, and that anyway, NTV’s move into Georgia is not a new danger, as Russian channels are already available in Georgia.
‘Banning is not a solution because it will still be accessible, given that we live in a digital era. Forbidden fruit is more desirable, so the problem is what the state strategy is like and how it is combatting Russian attempts. A strategic communication plan shouldn't be only on the paper, it should be real’, she told Liberali.
She also said the government should not give financial support to Georgian media outlets who disseminate Russian propaganda.
According to 2015 research commissioned by the GNCC, of 2,700 people interviewed throughout the country, almost half (47.7%), said they watched foreign TV channels daily. The most popular foreign TV channels were Russian NTV, owned by Gazprom Media, and Russia’s partly state-owned First Channel.
Kuprashvili said that regulating or banning Russian TV channels ‘will not solve the problem completely’, claiming that the segment of the population which gets information from Russian TV channels, will still access these channels with ‘pirate satellite TVs’.
‘Unacceptable to politicise’
NTV-Plus said in a statement that they had partnered with local company Media Group, which is already the ‘exclusive distributor’ of Gazprom’s more than 20 TV channels.
Dmitry Chernyshenko, the General Director of Gazprom Media, said that Media Group has ‘unique expertise in production, delivery and distribution’, creating ‘prerequisites for successful cooperation’.
Media Group, which registered as a company in Georgia in September 2017, is owned by two Georgian citizens — Davit Nakashikdze and Gulnara Khechoshvili. Nakashidze, who controlled 100% of the company, awarded half of his shares to Khechoshvili last December. Nakashidze served as the director of WiMAX Georgia, a subsidiary of Silknet, until January 2018.
After media controversy surrounding the move, Media Group issued a statement saying it was ‘unacceptable’ to politicise NTV-Plus’ entry into Georgia.
They said the channel is being illegally transmitted in the country on a large scale, with up to 300,000 users, costing Georgia $1.5 million.
‘The Media Group aims to make the market healthier by providing a legal service to our users, after which the revenue from users will stay in Georgia […] It’s worth mentioning that our channels are transmitted by all major cable companies in Georgia’, the statement said.
NTV was launched in 1993 by then owner Vladimir Gusinsky. Gusinsky sold the company to Gazprom in 2000 and was forced to flee Russia over the channel’s highly critical coverage of the Kremlin early in Vladimir Putin’s first term as president’, according to Reuters.