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RFE/RL fires Georgian head for ‘refusing to work with Rustavi 2’

31 January 2018
(Radio Tavisupleba)

The head of RFE/RL’s Georgian service, Radio Tavisupleba, has been fired ‘due to a disagreement with the central management’, according to him, with the outlet’s bureau chief reportedly resigning in protest. There have been reports RFE/RL’s central management has been pushing the bureau to affiliate with opposition-leaning TV channel Rustavi 2.

RFE/RL (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) is a US government-funded broadcasting organisation based in Prague with branches across Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

Davit Kakabadze told Georgian news site On.ge on 30 January that he had been fired, adding that ‘unfortunately, the particular people who are heading the radio now do not like it when they are opposed’ he said.

Kakabadze had worked at Radio Tavisupleba for 25 years, serving as director since 2005.

He told Adjara TV on 31 January that bureau chief Marina Vashakmadze had now resigned as she ‘could not imagine working in the bureau anymore’.

According to him, RFE/RL’s management have been focused on increasing viewership, and as such have been ‘supportive of cooperation with Rustavi 2’.

‘Affiliation’ with Rustavi 2

In mid-January, website BBG Watch (Broadcasting Board of Governors Watch), which claims to be working to ‘restore good management and sharp news focus to taxpayer-funded American media outreach abroad’, published an article citing ‘multiple’ unnamed sources claiming that RFE/RL’s senior management was pressuring Radio Tavisupleba to ‘affiliate with’ Rustavi 2.

They claimed Radio Tavisupleba had been resistant to the move, arguing it would lead to a loss of credibility in Georgia because Rustavi 2 is ‘perceived by many Georgians as being under the influence of the former ruling party, the United National Movement’ and its leader Mikheil Saakashvili.

Director General of Rustavi 2 Nika Gvaramia said after the article was published that it was the ‘first time’ he had heard of any planned cooperation between the two.

He added that when the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) dropped two joint programmes with RFE/RL, they had asked Rustavi 2 if they would pick up the canceled shows. Gvaramia said they they had agreed to air one of them, but only if RFE/RL covered all production expenses. ‘After this, there has been no communication’, he wrote on Facebook.

Jeremy Bransten, Regional Director for Europe at RFE/RL, confirmed to OC Media that discussions took place about airing the dropped shows on Rustavi 2, but insisted there was never a question of any kind of merger.

‘There was a discussion months ago about whether one or more RFE/RL programmes should be shown on Rustavi. People are entitled to their opinions about such an arrangement’.

He said they ‘are happy’ with an arrangement since reached to air the shows on Adjara TV, adding that the organisation always maintains complete editorial control over programmes they produce. ‘Had any broadcasting arrangement been reached with Rustavi, we would have of course insisted on this’, Bransten added.

Radio Tavisupleba responded to the speculation issuing a statement on another Georgian new site, Netgazeti on 25 January. They said, Radio Tavisupleba and RFE/RL’s central management could not agree on ‘alternate TV partners’ after GPB stopped airing the shows.

This, according to the statement, caused ‘severe controversy’ between Kakabadze and Nenad Pejić, Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of RFE/RL.

Staff ‘united in support’

BBG Watch reported that staff at Radio Tavisupleba had been united in support behind Kakabadze, and the statement issued on Netgazeti said that when plans to fire Kakabadze had been revealed, the whole staff had protested in a letter to President and CEO of RFE/RL, Tom Kent.

They added that although they had ‘full respect’ for Rustavi 2, staff at Radio Tavisupleba ‘unequivocally believe’ that they should cooperate only with channels ‘which are distanced from every political force as much as possible’.

A petition has been launched in support of Radio Tavisupleba, calling on RFE/RL to make sure that changes do not negatively impact the outlet.

Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani investigative journalist and former reporter at RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani bureau, who was arrested for her journalistic work, came to her Georgian colleagues’ defence on Facebook. ‘Unlike managers in Prague, for you it is more than a workplace and paycheck — it is about the right to tell the truth’, she wrote.

Martins Zvaners, deputy director of Media and Public Affairs at RFE/RL, confirmed to OC Media that Kakabadze is ‘no longer the director of the Georgian Service’, and added that out of respect for everyone involved, RFE/RL will not discuss internal matters.

‘I can assure that RFE/RL remains as committed as ever to high-quality, serious, professional, and balanced reporting. This has been the hallmark of our Georgian Service over 60 years, and we are determined that this continue. RFE/RL also remains committed to Ekho Kavkaza, which continues to be an important element of the Georgian Service and a critical source of accurate and independent reporting in Russian for Abkhazia and South Ossetia’, Zvarens said.

According to Bransten, there is no political motivation or subtext to the leadership change. ‘We are very proud of Tavisupleba's journalism and of its balance, which will always be maintained’.

[The article was updated on 1 February 2018]

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