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31.08.2009 17:56

Information Vacuum in Kvemo Kartli

David Mchedlidze
Features

Thirty km-s away from the capital, in the central street of Marneuli city the first eye-catching thing is numerous satellite antennas installed on the balconies, some of them rooming even two or three. The situation is similar in the villages in Marneuli region. Locals say they can guess according to the number of antennas the nationality of the owner and what they watch. Looking around the houses I found myself at the teahouse. Local teahouses are overcrowded with men drinking tea with lumps of sugar and talking idly. "We learn local news from each other," an old man told me explaining that people need satellite antennas to watch Turkish, Azerbaijani and Russian channels. They watch Georgian national channels too but they lack audience due to no knowledge of the Georgian language.

The press distribution company Sakpress newsagents sell Georgian and Russian newspapers and magazines. The news agent Sveta Kahalustyan doesn’t complain about the lack of customers, Georgian sports newspapers are best sellers. Azerbaijani language press is not for sale at the newsagents.

"I read only Georgian newspapers and watch Georgian television. I have studied Georgian for 2-3 years now," Hasan Tashtamirov, 38, one of the shop owners told me with slight accent. Hasan reads Tbilisi-based sports newspapers and weekly magazines, and can tell nothing about local media. I could hardly find Marneuli TV through enquiries. The building had no signboard on. I could find only Sergo Khakhutashvili, video engineer at the television.

"Azerbaijani language news outlet has been closed down, the Georgian one is aired once per week," he said.

There is a local newspaper, TV and radio in Marneuli. The small circulation newspaper comes out through the Gemgeoba funding and covers its activities. Marneuli TV is a private company but its main source of funding is the agreement concluded with the local authorities nevertheless the company faces financial problems.

The community radio Marneuli, set up two years ago by the NGO Studio Re with the technical support of BBC receives no money from the local budget. The community radio failed to obtain the license for community broadcasting. Therefore the loudspeakers were decided to be installed in the city teahouses and the central park. The radio managed to work this way for some time. Three-language news outlets produced by the radio staff was heard through the radio on a daily basis. For the time being the radio is out of service. According to Kamila Mamedova, the news outlet anchor and producer so far there is no hope for obtaining the license.

The news about Georgia is available in Marneuli through national channels but less interest is taken in the political events these channels are packed with.

"We don’t need information, let God give health to everybody and let us be given us water," Alikhan Jarchyev from Algeti told me in Russian showing a golden tooth. In the village of Algeti as well as in 80 villages in Marneuli region satellite antennas and Turkish-Azerbaijani channels have no competitors.

According to the statistics over 200,000 Azerbaijanis live in Kvemo Kartli. 83% of the population (122,000) in Marneuli is Azerbaijani. Their majority reside in Dmanisi and Bolnisi regions, 67 % and 66% respectively. But in Bolnisi the majority of population is made up of Georgians.

The majority of ethnically non-Georgian village dwellers don’t speak the state language therefore they can neither read Georgian press nor watch Georgian channels. They are promptly provided foreign news but the local one with delay and incompletely.

From Marneuli I headed to Bolnisi where two local TV channels work and both enjoy popularity. The local population learns news through weekly news digests on the channels and the Gamgeoba-owned newspaper. Bolnisi-based journalists say the field of their interests is limited to social problems and news outlets cover the issue.

According to Akaki Ugrekhelidze, producer at TV 5 49% of shares belong to Bolnisi Gamgeoba and they received GEL 200,000 funding from the budget. The television is technically well equipped. The TV broadcasting area, in addition to Bolnisi, covers Marneuli, Tetritskaro and part of Dmanisi and its audience tops 60,000. The news service journalists, they say, don’t feel discomfort shareholding with the local authorities, on the contrary as a result the stability of their salaries is secured.

Two televisions harmonically co-exist in Bolnisi and in fact they don’t compete. According to Eka Eradze, head of Channel 12 information service the weekly news digests are aired on different days, therefore both televisions have got audience. With the financial backing of Internews an Azerbaijani-language news outlet was being aired as well but the project drew to a close few months ago. Channel 12 rebroadcasts Rustavi 2 too, in addition it actively cooperates with local cable TV airing its creeping line commercials.

"Non-Georgian population in Bolnisi suffers from information vacuum and especially the villages populated with ethnic Azrbaijanis. When the Azrbaijani-language news outlets were suspended they appealed to us requesting the resumption of work but due to financial problems it was impossible," said Eka Eradze. The regional newspaper Timer coming out in the Georgian and Azerbaijani languages was rather popular.

The Timer was a media project by the NGO Civil Development Agency (CiDA) whose headquarter is located in Rustavi. The Timer was the first precedent of launching a regional newspaper in Kvemo Kartli whohad set up a whole network of journalists across the whole region. On the same basis the Reginfo news agency was set up in 2007.

According to the newspaper editor Zviad Devdariani the printing of the Timer has been recently suspended due to the end of grant funding. The Timer carries on its activity on the Internet. The Internet version is considerably modest but they still try to cover the important events ongoing in the region.

Reginfo too goes on its work but for the majority of Kvemo Karto residents it remains unavailable due to the Internet-related problems in the region. There is no Internet service available in Tsalka, Dmanisi and Tetritskaro. As regards Bolnisi the local city hall, television and newspaper enjoy this luxury. The situation is far better in Marneuli where the Internet is available not for the administrative center only but for a number of villages as well.

Six local newspapers come out in municipalities in Kvemo Kartli (except Rustavi city). All six newspapers belong to local Gamgeobas and their Websites essentially cover the activities by the self government bodies. The newspapers fail to fill the information vacuum existing in the region for years and unfortunately still remaining unchanged.

The majority of population in Kvemo Kartli is made up of ethnic minorities. One of their essential problems is the unavailability of information in the language understandable to them, the conclusion was made yet in 2005 by the researchers from Internews Georgia, IWPR and Studio Re.

The main source of information for ethnic Azerbaijanis is Russian, Azerbaijani and Turkish TV channels. They watch central Georgian channels too but the lack of knowledge of the language hinders their full understanding of information," reads the research.

Three months ago the Georgian government ratified the National Concept for Tolerance and Civil Integration. In line with the concept the full provision of information to the national minorities is planned through various tasks including the enhancement of electronic and print media in the languages of ethnic minorities.

But while the authorities discusses the ways of keeping the local population informed Marneuli  TV, with the view of overcoming the language barrier, is to launch a new project funded by the Open Society Georgia Foundation.

Three months ago the Georgian government ratified the National Concept for Tolerance and Civil Integration. In line with the concept the full provision of information to the national minorities is planned through various tasks including the enhancement of electronic and print media in the languages of ethnic minorities.

The representatives of ethnic minorities in Kvemo Kartli know nothing about the Concept and the plans of the government. And Kvemo Kartli media, weather independent on dependent on anyone, fails to fill information vacuum.

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