Just days away from a crucial parliamentary election, the Republic of Georgia has been shaken by the appearance of a video that allegedly shows human-rights abuses in the country's prisons. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports that the video appeared on a television channel connected to a billionaire who is President Mikheil Saakashvili's main opponent.
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The Republic of Georgia holds a crucial parliamentary election tomorrow. The vote is happening just days after video emerged that allegedly shows human-rights abuses in the country's prisons. The video sparked protests in the streets of Tbilisi and the arrest of prison officials. The scandal could effect the election, which will determine whether the party of President Mikheil Saakashvili will keep control of the government. The video appeared on a television channel connected to a billionaire who just happens to be Saakashvili's main opponent.
And a warning, this story does have some graphic descriptions. Here's NPR's Corey Flintoff.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: TV-9 has been on the air for a little over four months, but it has already become a thorn in the side of the government. Since he took office after the 2003 Rose Revolution, President Saakashvili has portrayed himself as a pro-Western, pro-democracy reformer who favors joining the European Union and NATO. His positions won him many friends in the U.S. Congress, but allegations of political repression, the kind aired by TV-9, have been chipping away at his reputation.
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FLINTOFF: This is the TV-9 control room in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital. Nine people stare intently at TV monitors, waiting for the director to cue the theme for the 6 PM news.
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FLINTOFF: The opposition in Georgia's parliamentary election says state-run television promotes the government and ruling party candidates, while ignoring or attacking the opposition.
Outside experts, such as Luis Navarro, say Georgia citizens perceive bias in their news sources.
LUIS NAVARRO: And people are very clear that they think the larger national broadcasters are pro-government. And they're also clear that the stations which are commonly thought of as opposition, are in fact opposition
FLINTOFF: Navarro is the country director for the National Democratic Institute, the U.S.-government-funded organization designed to promote democracy.
TV-9 staffers say they're creating a credible news alternative to pro-government broadcasters. The big story right now is the emergence of shocking video aired on TV-9 that appears to show guards at a Georgian prison beating prisoners and raping some with broomsticks.
The revelations couldn't come at a worse time for the government, just before parliamentary elections that the ruling party was predicted to win. And, government officials say TV-9 was created for just this purpose, to spread damaging stories that discredit the government. They say TV-9 serves as a mouthpiece for Georgian Dream, the coalition founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who's aiming to win enough seats in parliament to make himself the prime minister.
This is Shota Utiashvili, a government spokesman and head of public relations in the prime minister's office.
SHOTA UTIASHVILI: I'm not a regular watcher of TV-9, but the news broadcasts that I have watched make me believe that this is just a propaganda outlet of Mr. Ivanishvili.
FLINTOFF: Utiashvili points to the millions of dollars invested in TV-9's meteoric startup as a sign that Ivanishvili is willing to spend whatever it takes to get elected. TV-9 officials say the station is funded by a company that's co-owned by Ivanishvili's wife.
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FLINTOFF: The station boasts first-rate studios, a fleet of SUVs equipped with satellite dishes, and a country-wide staff of more than 350 employees. It is building a state-of-the-art broadcast center in Tbilisi. It has local bureaus in 35 Georgian cities and towns, more than any other station. And it has a reputation for paying top salaries to experienced journalists.
TAMAR RUKHADZE: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: Tamar Rukhadze, TV-9's news director, says that the money from Ivanishvili doesn't influence the station's editorial policy and that she has never felt any pressure over what she chooses to cover.
The conflict over TV-9 is a microcosm of Georgia's political scene. President Saakashvili has been tarnished by allegations that his government has become increasingly authoritarian. Ivanishvili is a mystery to many Georgians, a man who made billions of dollars in Russia, then returned to his home country to spend millions on philanthropy and eventually politics.
The latest scandal in the news shows how much each man's political career may depend on how his story is told.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.