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Pro-government Georgian TV channel merges with anti-West group Popular Force

5 October 2022
Viktor Japaridze.

A TV channel dedicated to ‘exposing’ and criticising the Georgian Government’s liberal opposition has announced that it will become the media arm of Popular Force, a Georgian Dream spin-off group dedicated to criticising Georgia’s western partners.

On Tuesday, POSTV announced that, in line with their previous ‘ideological platform’, they had become a media platform for Popular Force.

The channel, which has previously been accused of supporting pro-Kremlin and far-right groups and engaging in covert social media campaigns to influence elections, announced its alliance with the anti-western group just as Popular Force announced it had more than doubled its membership.

‘We believe that their stated mission — to better inform Georgian people in this complex and volatile geopolitical situation — aligns with the idea that was behind the founding of our channel’. 

Popular Force is a parliamentary grouping that first emerged in July, founded by three MPs who claimed to have ‘left’ the ruling Georgian Dream party to speak ‘more openly’ about alleged attempts by Ukrainian and Western officials and local opposition groups to push Georgia into war with Russia. 

Following the group’s allegations against US Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan,  the US Department of State issued a statement condemning ‘personal attacks’ on the ambassador by Georgian government officials. 

The following month, Popular Front accused the US, without evidence, of attempting a coup in Georgia and claimed that the country was responsible for almost every major controversy that took place under Georgian Dream’s rule. 

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One of the leaders of Popular Force, Sozar Subari (centre), previously served as Public Defender of Georgia (2004–2009). Until mid-2020, he occupied various senior positions within the Georgian Dream-led government. Image via Kavkasia.

While they claimed initially to have left the ruling party, Popular Force lawmakers, of whom there are now nine, have not abandoned the parliamentary majority grouping, and continue to support the government in parliament. If they had, Georgian Dream would have lost their majority, leaving them with only 75 MPs. This is one of a number of factors that have called into question their distance and difference from the ruling party. 

Georgian Dream have also repeatedly stated that they do not have substantial or ‘value-based’ differences with Popular Force, further strengthening the theory that the split was orchestrated by the ruling party’s leadership. Georgia’s main opposition groups have alleged that this is the case.

Government support and covert campaigns 

POSTV was launched in 2018, headed by former Deputy Prosecutor General Lasha Natsvlishvili, who is no longer formally associated with the channel, and Shalva Ramishvili. Ramishvili is a controversial figure and a staunch critic of the United National Movement, Georgia’s leading opposition party, as well as of civil society groups critical of the government.

Before their latest announcement, POSTV had already given substantial airtime to Popular Force members and other supporters of former Georgian PM and Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, including those who accuse the US government of waging a political war against Ivanishvili.

Shalva Ramishvili appearing on his programme Samni & Co.

In 2020, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab reported on POSTV’s covert cooperation on social media with pro-Kremlin parliamentary party the Alliance of Patriots and the far-right Georgian March group.

A year earlier, watchdog group ISFED exposed a similar covert online campaign run by POSTV. It targeted the main opposition candidate in a 2019 by-election in Tbilisi.

In August, the former Deputy Head of Georgia’s State Security Service, Soso Gogashvili, described POSTV as having been created by the State Security Service, vowing to talk more about this in the future. 

[Read more on OC Media: 5 allegations by Georgia’s former security chief]

According to the Communications Commission’s report for the second quarter of this year, POSTV came up sixth in advertising revenue, earning ₾1 million ($360,000), with pro-government TV channel Imedi topping the list.

Lawmaker and unlawful media owner

On Tuesday, Popular Force unveiled new members of their movement — several anchors of POSTV, and five MPs from Georgian Dream: Zaal Mikeladze, Eka Sepashvili, Davit Kacharava, Dachi Beraia, and Viktor Japaridze. Japaridze was also announced as the new owner of controlling shares of the TV company.

Japaridze acquired 52% of POSTV shares for ₾520,000 ($190,000) on the same day that the growth of the movement was announced. 

Georgian legislation bans ‘an official of an administrative body or other officer’ from being a media license holder. 

The Georgian Media Advocacy Coalition promptly appealed to Communications Commission to act in line with their ruling over a similar case in 2017, when they forced incoming lawmakers Nato Chkheidze and Zaza Okuashvili to relinquish shares in media companies. 

Japaridze, a majoritarian MP since 2004 who allied himself with Georgian Dream upon their coming to power in 2012, was implicated in a scandal in 2018 when he was an apparent intermediary between the government and former senior official Mirza Subeliani, who reportedly tried to blackmail them.

[Read the analysis in OC Media’s archive: Georgia’s tapes scandals suggest something is rotten at the top of Georgian politics]

On Wednesday, Transparency International — Georgia reported that Japaridze had donated four times to Georgian Dream during 2012–2017 and that various companies ‘associated’ with him or his family had received a total of ₾7.8 million ($2.8 million) from government procurements in recent years.

The group also reported that Japaridze failed to declare all his income last year and that there were signs of nepotism regarding the employment of his relatives in public offices.

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