On Monday a new television channel was due to take to the air but when viewers tried to tune in it wasn’t there. Something had prompted Eutelsat, the French satellite operator, to cancel the contract it had signed to carry the station. Some people think that “something” was the Kremlin because the station is Georgian owned and was promising a schedule of television news – in Russian – detailing human rights abuses, corruption and brutality in Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus.
First Caucasian is Georgia’s first Russian-language television channel. The plan is to stream it live online and broadcast via satellite to the Caucasus, including Russia’s restless republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. But after Eutelsat pulled the plug (according to the Georgians they said they had received a better offer from a media arm of Russia’s energy giant Gazprom) all that’s left are the webcasts, and few in the North Caucasus have the technology to watch those.
Eutelsat denies any political undertones to the decision, but Georgian officials are furious and insist that it amounts to little more than bullying from the Russian side to keep a critical voice off the air.”We’ve been having meetings at a very high level,” says, Ekaterina Kotrikadze, head of First Caucasian, by phone from Brussels. “We’ve met with members of the European Parliament and they say they can’t believe this kind of thing is going on in the 21st century, and promise to sort it out.”
Russia and Georgia fought a vicious war in 2008 and ever since have been fighting an international PR battle for Western opinion over who was to blame for the conflict – Kremlin neo-imperialism or neocon-sponsored Georgian recklessness. But the launch of First Caucasian was a gambit by the Georgians to move the propaganda battle away from the wider world and bring it directly into enemy territory.
In Russia’s southern fringe, the political situation is tense, terrorists strike daily, and corrupt and ruthless officials ensure that little critical reporting makes it into newspapers or onto the air. First Caucasian offers news, features and films about Georgia, but also extensive reporting from the North Caucasus. Stringers in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia have been taken on to produce the kind of reports that Russian state television wouldn’t dream of airing.
One Russian official accused the channel of promoting terrorism. Others said it was simple propaganda. Of course, being a product of the Georgian state broadcaster, there was some truth to this. Criticism of Georgia, and its president Mikheil Saakashvili was likely to be toned down.
“It’s quite possible that in their coverage of Georgia they are censored,” says one stringer from the North Caucasus. “But in their coverage of Russia, it’s a breath of fresh air.” Adding to the Kremlin’s discomfort are the hosts of some of the channel’s shows, which include Alla Dudayeva, the widow of Chechnya’s first separatist president, Dzhokar Dudayev. There’s also Oleg Panfilov, a Russian journalist critical of the Kremlin who now spends a lot of time in Georgia.
If the Russians have succeeded in keeping First Caucasian off satellite broadcasts, then they have won this PR battle. But the war is likely to continue for as long as Saakashvili is in power in Georgia.