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26 Mar, 2008 17:04

Georgian TV in bitter ownership row

There are claims in Georgia that the government has taken control of an opposition television station once owned by billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, who died in February. Around 500 protesters are demanding Imedi TV be returned to his family after his

TV-Imedi station, known for its pro-opposition line, has been off the air for over three months. Broadcasts will resume in a few days time.

But the opposition protestors do not welcome the news. They say the government is attempting to gain control of their favourite channel.

“Saakashvili and his team are looting! They are stifling the last voice of freedom of speech in Georgia,” opposition leader Goga Khaindrava said.

The channel was owned by billionaire oligarch Badri Patarkatishvili, who died of a sudden heart attack in Britain last month.

Now Joseph Kay, claims to be the owner. Kay, who is also known as Ioseb Kakalashvili, is a distant relative of Patarkatsishvili. The opposition say he is merely a frontman for the government, Kay dismisses the claim.

“This television station will be neither pro-opposition nor pro-government; this is a television station that should broadcast in line with the principle of freedom of speech,” he says.

Patarkatsishvili's widow challenges Kay's claim to Imedi. She says he is trying to defraud her of her late husband's assets.

Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation is also considering legal action against Kay. Though their flag still flies outside Imedi's offices, Kay terminated a contract that gave News Corp 100% management rights to Imedi's shares.

“Is it legal or is it not, also will be checked by the lawyers of News Corp. If they have something against it they will sue Mr Kay,” Imedi managing director Bidzina Baratashvili said.

According to Kay, News Corp, the worlds largest media company, is connected to exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a former business partner of Patarkatsishvili.

“For me News Corp. is Boris Berezovsky; there is no place for Berezovsky here,” Kay said.

The station first stopped broadcasts on November 7, when it was raided by special forces and closed. It returned in December, only to close again after the release of recordings apparently showing Patarkatsishvili plotting to stage mass unrest. With legal battles looming, Imedi's return to the air looks likely to be as scandalous as its suspension.