Jan 05, 2012

Abkhazia: Extending and Revitalising the Republic's Broadcasting

Following calls for reform, President Ankvab has initiated steps to improve the level and quality of television and radio broadcasting in Abkhazia so that they can better reflect the needs and interests of Abkhaz audiences.

Below is an article published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

Over the past two months, the leadership of Georgia's breakaway Republic of Abkhazia has adopted two separate measures aimed at ensuring greater diversity of broadcast media.

In early November [2011], de facto President Aleksandr Ankvab personally signed a decree granting the private TV station Abaza permission to broadcast republic-wide. Abkhazia's sole independent TV broadcaster, Abaza was founded four years earlier by Beslan Butba, the wealthy businessman who chairs the Party of Economic Development of Abkhazia (PERA). Until now, its broadcasts have reached only Sukhumi and the surrounding area.

Butba first sought to expand broadcasting republic-wide in the run-up to the December 2009 presidential election, but without success. Butba placed fourth in that ballot with 7.9 percent of the vote. PERA, initially in opposition to the leadership of then President Sergei Bagapsh, shifted in early 2010 to a more moderate, centrist position because, Butba argued, the polarization between Bagapsh's United Abkhazia party and the radical opposition Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia (FNEA) headed by Bagapsh's erstwhile vice president, Raul Khadjimba, hindered the ongoing democratization that was one of PERA's priorities.

Khadjimba, who lost to Ankvab in the August ballot to elect a successor to Bagapsh, was the moving force behind the second measure: the creation of a working group tasked with revitalizing the output of Abkhaz state TV and radio.

Both FNEA and other opposition parties have long sought to expand and revamp TV and radio broadcasting in such a way as to promote a far greater plurality of views, including their own. In May 2010, Khadjimba and 23 other opposition politicians addressed an open letter to Bagapsh, parliament speaker Nugzar Ashuba, and then Prime Minister Sergei Shamba in May 2010 advocating the introduction on both state TV and radio of a two-hour weekly program in which political parties and movements and independent journalists would participate; the creation of a Public Council that would oversee the state broadcasters; and setting up a public broadcaster. They also demanded Butba's Abaza TV be granted a license to broadcast republic-wide.

State information service head Kristian Bzhania conceded at a press conference a few weeks later that state TV's programming "could be better" and that "we rarely get the chance to watch programs that satisfy our interest and curiosity." But no fundamental effort was undertaken to improve the situation.

In late October 2011, Khadjimba sent another open letter, this time to Ankvab, de facto Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaia, and the acting director of Abkhaz state TV. At that juncture, Ankvab had already dismissed Guram Amkuab, who had headed state TV and radio for 15 years, and of whom independent journalist Inal Khashig commented to RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus, "he always tried to make himself useful to whomever was in power by faithfully reflecting the official line."

Khadjimba complained that the management of state TV routinely ignores all the opposition's demands for more extensive and in-depth coverage of pressing political, socio-economic, legal, demographic and other issues, including corruption. He called for the creation of an independent public council that would advise the management of state TV on programming priorities and promote and act on feedback from viewers and listeners.

Ankvab duly summoned Khadjimba and other opposition representatives to discuss Khadjimba's complaints and proposals, but he drew the line at creating the public council Khadjimba wanted. Instead, he set up a "working group" headed by Bzhania that includes five senior state TV and radio officials, including Amkuab's successor, Alkhas Cholokua, and a couple of independent journalists. That group is to formulate its reform proposals by March 1 [2012] -- too late for them to be implemented during the run-up to the parliamentary elections on March 10.