Legal advocacy and watchdog group, Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), said that court’s decision to impound thousands of satellite dishes, imported by Tbilisi-based Maestro TV, was “illegal” and “unjustified”.
“Court ruling on impounding Maestro’s property [satellite dishes and receivers] is unjustified… Not only the court does not describe and evaluate any evidence, but it even does not mention any of them at all,” the Tbilisi-based legal advocacy group said in a statement on July 31.
It said that the court’s ruling only “provides sketchy theoretical and hypothetical considerations about possible vote-buying by Maestro TV.”
GYLA said that the ruling is contradictory too, because the judge, on the one hand, refers to paragraph 3 of article 151 of the criminal procedures code, but, on the other hand, in justification part of the ruling a reference is made to another paragraph of the same article.
The group said that Maestro TV’s right to defense has also been violated because investigation files are not accessible for the TV station on the ground that it does not represent a party into the ongoing investigation.
Satellite dishes were seized as part of an investigation launched by the chief prosecutor’s office on June 20 into the case of possible vote-buying; investigation was not launched against any particular person or an entity and as a result no charges have been brought so far against anyone or any entity.
This form of investigation, GYLA said, does not make Maestro TV a formal party into the case, hence it is not formally eligible to receive investigation files, including evidence into the case. GYLA says that inability to have an access to the case files restricts Maestro TV’s right to effectively use its right to defense while appealing the court’s ruling, because the TV station, whose property has been targeted, is not aware based on what evidence decision to impound property was taken and lacks the possibility to verify whether the evidence into the case are fabricated or not and to check whether these evidence were obtained by investigators through legal means.
As part of the same ongoing investigation, launched on June 20 by the chief prosecutor’s office, tens of thousands of satellite dishes, owned by Global Contact Consulting (Global TV), a cable and satellite TV provider affiliated to Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of Georgian Dream opposition coalition, were also impounded.
In a statement on July 12 the chief prosecutor’s office laid out some of its arguments based on which it claims that Maestro TV imported “thousands” of satellite dish antennas “upon instructions” of and through “sham deal” with Elita Burji, a company also affiliated with Bidzina Ivanishvili. It said that these satellite dishes were intended for “distribution in favor of Georgian Dream” and with a purpose of “bribing voters under the scheme once already used by Global Contact Consulting”. The chief prosecutor’s office claims that imported satellite dish antennas were in fact bought by Ivanishvili-affiliated companies and Maestro TV was acting only as a nominal owner. The prosecutor’s office said that part of imported satellite antennas were bearing label of Global TV. It also said that satellite dishes were bought from the same Turkish company, which acted as a provider of satellite antennas for Global TV. The chief prosecutor’s office also said that customs clearance procedures for imported satellite dishes were carried out by some of the representatives of Elita Burji and not by representatives of Maestro TV, which represented “additional proof” that Maestro TV was in “sham deal” with Ivanishvili-affiliated companies.
Maestro TV has denied allegations and said that its property was targeted by the authorities as part of an attempt to restrict public’s access to information ahead of the parliamentary elections. Maestro TV, like Ivanishvili-affiliated Channel 9 TV station is available via satellite and through few cable networks (Channel 9 is only carried now by Global TV cable provider).
Maestro TV said that it was planning to hand out satellite dishes to households in the provinces for a small, “symbolic” price as part of its campaign “Maestro in Every Family” aimed at broadening scope of its viewers across the country. The campaign, Maestro TV has claimed, was financed by its financial backer Maka Asatiani, who owns 25% of shares in the TV channel. Although Maestro TV installed one satellite dish antenna in one of the villages as a PR move in lead up to the campaign, handing out of satellite dishes was not yet launched and exact terms under which the Maestro TV was planning to install antennas remained unclear.
According to Maestro TV, since November, 2011 Maka Asatiani has invested in the TV channel GEL 5.18 million in addition to USD 1.5 million which was allocated for the purchase of various equipment for the TV channel. Maestro TV also said that its ad revenues in March-June, 2012 amounted to GEL 651,950.
According to GYLA, criminal procedures code allows the authorities to keep Maestro TV’s property in seizure for maximum of six years.
“The court’s ruling on impounding Maestro’s satellite dish antennas contradicts the Georgian laws and violates freedom of expression and has extremely negative effect on Georgian media and, in general, on pre-election environment,” GYLA said in its statement.