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Ukrainian, Georgian Media Warn of Political Crackdown Ahead of Elections

Plus, UN chief’s Kosovo visit gets mixed reactions and street art in Yekaterinburg gets results.

by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, Joshua Boissevain, Sofia Lotto Persio, and Ernad Halilovic 25 July 2012

1. More trouble for opposition-linked Georgian TV station


Georgian police seized a shipment of satellite dishes and other equipment bound for the Maestro pro-opposition TV station 24 July in an escalating dispute linked to opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili’s election campaign.


Maestro’s general director, Ilia Kikabidze, said as many as 16,000 satellite dishes had been seized in recent days, Democracy & Freedom Watch reports.


The chief prosecutor’s office accuses Maestro of acting on behalf of companies affiliated with Ivanishvili in a plan to distribute the satellite dishes to voters, reports.


Ivanishvili100Bidzina Ivanishvili
Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of the Georgian Dream coalition that will take part in parliamentary elections in the fall, was hit with fines totaling $90 million in June for alleged violations of campaign funding laws. On 25 July Ivanishvili said he would pay $48 million of the fine, explaining it as a contribution to relief for parts of the country struck last week by a major storm.


Maestro says the equipment was to be used in a public relations campaign for the station, according to Democracy & Freedom Watch.


Another TV station affiliated with Ivanishvili, Channel 9, had a reported 300,000 satellite dishes seized in June.


2. Ukrainian journalists warn of increased attacks on press freedom


With Ukrainian parliamentary elections approaching, journalists are warning that independent news media have recently come under attack, according to the Kyiv Post. Two news organizations – the TVi television channel and the website – are subjects of criminal investigations by Ukrainian authorities, which critics say are politically orchestrated to quell independent media before the 28 October poll. The charges have also drawn statements of concern from the European Commission and several press-freedom groups. Around 100 journalists gathered 19 July in Kyiv calling for the charges to be dropped, the Kyiv Post reports.


Mykola KniazhytskyMykola Kniazhytsky
TVi, one of the country’s few investigative news organizations, was the first to feel the government pressure. Earlier this month, tax police said TVi director Mykola Kniazhytsky had failed to pay some 3 million hryvnia ($375,000) in back taxes, a charge he denies. On 20 July, the channel was dropped by a cable network broadcasting in 11 cities and replaced with Bankivske TV, a taxpayer-financed station run by the National Bank, according to the Kyiv Post.


The charges against the website relate to a story published on the site in 2011 that investigators say violated the privacy of Volodymyr Landik, a member of parliament from the pro-presidential Party of Regions. Prosecutors confirmed that a case had been opened against the site even though Landik has previously said he was not interested in pursuing the case, according to the Kyiv Post. The site’s editor in chief, Sonya Koshkina, recently told that she and three other members of the editorial staff had fled the country fearing imprisonment.


In parliament, a Party of Regions lawmaker introduced a bill 24 July that would make defamation a criminal offense punishable by a fine of 85,000 hryvnia ($10,500) and five years in prison, according to the Kyiv Post.


3. Czech car owners livid over registration fiasco


Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas has ordered the transport minister, Pavel Dobes, to fix the bugs in a new vehicle registration system by 27 July or submit his resignation, Lidove noviny writes.


The system has collapsed several times since being introduced 9 July, and when it does operate often produces erroneous information, Radio Prague reports. Long lines formed at several registration offices as vehicle owners tried in vain to update their registrations.


After receiving the ultimatum from Necas on 24 July, Dobes fired a senior ministry official and cut the salaries of four others.


In a separate article, Lidove noviny cites an estimate of 1 million errors in the database of vehicle owners. One of the punished officials, Deputy Transport Minister Miroslav Drobny, thinks the only solution is for each owner personally to correct the errors at a registry office, a process that could take years. The mistakes include wrong names of owners and discrepancies in technical information such as engine size and body color, Drobny said.


The company that developed the software, ATS-Telcom, could face a fine of up to 2 million crowns ($94,000) for each day the system is out of operation, according to Lidove noviny. The company won the $1.7 million contract without a tender.


4. Ban’s Kosovo visit exposes differences over UN role


UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for dialogue to ease continuing ethnic tensions in northern Kosovo 24 July during his first visit since the country declared independence four years ago.


As Ban visited the Pristina headquarters of the UN mission to Kosovo, members of the nationalist Self-Determination movement held a protest outside calling for the mission to close down, B92 reports.


Ban came to Pristina a day after meeting Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and other leaders in Belgrade. His trip brought out conflicting Serbian and Kosovan views on the role of the UN in the region. Nikolic told Ban he wants the UN to participate in EU-sponsored talks between Serbia and Kosovo, an idea Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci rejected after his own meeting with Ban.


Ban_KosovoPhoto: UNMIK/O.Salgado


5. Russian activists find way to get the roads fixed


Civic activists in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg teamed up with local artists to stage a protest against bad roads on the night of 23-24 July in highly visible fashion. Artists surrounded several potholes with giant caricatures of local politicians in a project they call “Make the officials work,” Radio Free Europe writes.


Officials’ past campaign promises to fix the city’s notoriously bad roads accompanied the caricatures. "Reconstructing the roads is our main task,” read the text next to a huge portrait of Sverdlovsk Governor Yevgeny Kuivashev. The image of Mayor Yevgeny Porunov promised, “All potholes will be repaired by April 2012.”


The victims of the prank didn’t appreciate the street art, but the paintings had some effect, the news agency reports. Porunov called the works "unsanctioned and inappropriate pictures that are polluting the city." On 24 July cleaning crews washed off the paintings and filled the potholes, as video from hidden cameras installed by shows (see below).



Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor for TOL. Ioana Caloianu and Joshua Boissevain are TOL editorial assistants. Sofia Lotto Persio and Ernad Halilovic are TOL editorial interns.

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