Georgia pledges TV access after accusation of muzzling
TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia will ensure all TV providers carry all stations, officials said on Friday, after the opposition accused the authorities of muzzling media by staging a police raid on a company that gave out free satellite dishes.
Police seized satellite dishes on Thursday from Global Contact Consulting, a company owned by the brother of billionaire opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili which was giving the dishes out for free.
The authorities accuse the company of trying to win votes for the opposition with gifts. Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition said Georgians need the free dishes to have access to independent channels, which are not included in major cable providers' packages.
In an apparent effort to resolve the controversy, parliament speaker David Bakradze said changes to the electoral code would require all cable providers to carry all channels in the runup to a parliamentary election in October.
"It will apply to all television stations and it will be a huge step that will help the population receive more information," Bakradze told privately owned Imedi TV.
Eka Zguladze, a deputy interior minister, told reporters the free dishes amounted to illegal gifts intended to win votes.
"It's very unfortunate that Mr Bidzina Ivanishvili and his supporters put themselves above the law and try to weaken democracy in Georgia," she said.
Georgian Dream said the police raid was an attack on media independence.
"The dishes would have made it possible for television stations, reporting objectively, to bring information into the provinces and that would dispel the lies by Saakashvili's television stations," it said in a statement.
Ivanishvili, a 56-year-old entrepreneur whose fortune is estimated at $6.4 billion by Forbes magazine, has united opposition parties in the Caucasus state of 4.5 million, but opinion polls show Georgian Dream trails far behind the ruling United National Movement.
Saakashvili became the West's darling when he rose to power after the bloodless "rose revolution" that toppled Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003. Opponents accuse him of curbing freedoms and criticise him for leading Georgia into a disastrous war with Russia in August 2008.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff)
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