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24 Mar, 2008 20:01

Georgians rally for free media

About ten thousand protestors gathered at the Parliament building in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on Monday. They were demanding that independent Imedi TV, closed down in late 2007, be allowed back on air.

The protests come as a two-week-old hunger strike by about fifty members of the opposition goes ahead outside the parliament building. They say January's presidential election was unfair and want Georgia’s Election Code changed.

Doctors claim three of the hunger strikers are in a serious condition. They are refusing to go to hospital.

Protests are planned every day until March 29. But Imedi has only two days to resume broadcasting or its license could be pulled for good.

The pro-opposition channel was owned by billionaire oligarch Badri Patarkatishvili, who died of a sudden heart attack in Britain last month. The opposition now says the government is attempting to seize Imedi TV for its own ends.

The ownership of Imedi – once Georgia's most popular channel – is now disputed between Patarkatsishvili's widow and a distant relative. Government representatives say this is strictly a family matter.

Imedi has been at the centre of scandal since November 7, when, following a day of clashes between police and demonstrators, it was raided by special forces and closed. It went back on air in December, only to close again after a mass staff walk-out. Imedi's employees quit following the release of recordings apparently showing the channel's owner plotting to stage mass unrest.

Questions over its ownership have dogged attempts to get it back on air, but the opposition demand that it resume broadcasts immediately.

Imedi's directors say they hope the channel will resume broadcasting soon. For now, the fate of the station is only raising the political tension in Georgia still further.