Abkhazian Television as a mirror of the times

(Русский)

Continuing our ‘Caucasus Dialogues’ series on ‘Tolerance and conflict’, International Alert asked journalist and photographer Ibragim Chkadua to comment on the role of television in shaping discourse and national identity. Here, Ibragim outlines the changing role of the official Abkhazian Television channel through periods of political change in Abkhazia and offers his recommendations for reform.

History

Abkhazian Television appeared in 1978 as a result of the Abkhaz liberation movement, following mass protests of a people dissatisfied with the nationalities policy in the republic. This was an important factor behind the channel’s significance in public life in later years, which saw the first ethnic clashes in 1989, the collapse of the USSR, the Georgian-Abkhaz war and two decades of the Republic of Abkhazia as an independent state.

At various points in history Abkhazian Television (AGTRK) has not just been a news or an educational channel, but in many respects it was the major – and during the war, along with Abkhaz radio, the only – unifying information source on socio-political life in the country. After the war AGTRK continued to function as the main communicator in society, as newspaper distribution virtually ceased and print media could not compete in speed with television. In addition to its main role as a news source, AGTRK had other functions typical of a national television company: educational, cultural, entertainment, and so on.

As an employee of Abkhazian Television for the first 10 years after the war, I witnessed directly how the channel developed in the post-war period. It was a time of international sanctions against Abkhazia, which coincided with technical modernisation in global television. The transition from linear to computer-based editing, and of course a full overhaul of equipment during the economic blockade, was very difficult. AGTRK was forced to use just 2-3 cameras to cover all geographical regions, and at the same time re-train staff on the spot. But despite all of this, basic genre features were created for the network, which now form the archive – the Abkhaz Anthology of Poetry, The Chronicles of the 1992-1993 War, documentaries and so on. It was a time of permanent war with Georgia in border areas and terrorist attacks throughout Abkhazia, so AGTRK was still used as a means to call up reservists. It was not by chance that AGTRK itself suffered a terrorist attack in 1995, when a mobile broadcast unit was blown up.

Presidential elections 2004–2005

A new aspect of Abkhazian Television appeared during the 2004–2005 presidential elections, when it became the main arena of confrontation. In the year before the elections, a new AGTRK leadership experimented with a variety of new formats, involving live broadcast, such as the talk show (Aamta haztagyla) and discussions with various politicians and public figures. The then opposition made use of this new openness, thus influencing the outcome of the election. Back then, AGTRK became the fiercest platform for political debates, but just a few days after the 3 October 2004 election, it fell under the control of Bagapsh supporters.[1] Another broadcaster appeared presenting an alternative perspective, putting across the views of Khadzhimba supporters. So finally, an ideological confrontation took shape between the main political groups, which was reflected also in the press.

By this time Russia had significantly relaxed the sanctions against Abkhazia, having been the main enforcer of these, and public concerns moved from external to internal affairs. Having suffered war and a decade-long blockade, Abkhazia was in much need of relief from the constant stress of being in a state of ‘no war, no peace’. There was an urgent need for dignified civilian existence – one where one could get on with building one’s life and have more optimistic expectations for the future. This had been one of the election promises of the new political elite, and was largely responsible for their somewhat doubtful – in my opinion – victory. The new team was largely comprised of well-known figures with Party and Komsomol pasts, something which to a large extent defined AGTRK broadcasting policy in subsequent years, becoming more like Soviet era television both in essence as well as in form. This manifested itself mainly in the virtual disappearance of live broadcasts and absence of debate on socio-political issues, except for during the brief periods around election times. Neither did the emergence of private TV channel Abaza manage to fully open an outlet for expression of alternatives to the official point of view, especially since it only got its license to broadcast to the whole of Abkhazia in 2012.

Television reform

The issue of television reform has been around for years. Political parties and journalist groups have made proposals for reform, and a Presidential Commission on Television Reform was even created (of which I was a member). However, there have been no legislative or organisational changes with regard to television as of yet. Some of the main proposals included, among others, the method of appointing the director and heads of departments; the establishment of a public council for television; planning principles for the broadcasting network; and competitive funding of programmes.

Today’s Abkhaz television broadcasts quite a lot of interesting and relevant programmes, but AGTRK does not meet modern operating standards. In my view, there are a number of fundamental problems. First of all this relates to the quality of news, which is the core of any informational channel. It is high time to shift from the positivist Soviet style of broadcasting when the viewer is presented with upbeat updates from the inner cabinet, to a more satisfactory coverage of current affairs. There should be no taboo subjects except those regulated by law, and no ban on persons who by rights should be covered but who do not in fact appear in news stories or other broadcasting formats.

There is an urgent need for more educational projects, particularly in relation to the increasing use of Abkhaz as the official language; a need to create programmes and films that would reflect advances in domestic science and culture. And with the international recognition of Abkhazia's independence in 2008, there appeared even more urgent requirement for television programming in different languages (Russian, English, Spanish and so on), especially for the countries that have recognised Abkhazia. High-quality television and film production can play a huge role in de-isolating a country and creating a favourable image. Television also has a role to play in supporting the integration of Abkhazia’s ethnic communities in development and statebuilding processes. This includes both language training programmes adapted for different communities and educational broadcasts (historical, political and so on), with participation of the different communities.

A platform for national dialogue

And so to probably the most important thing. At the moment, we can say that societal debate in general takes place on different planes. One of these is official, at AGTRK, and the other is on social networks, primarily Facebook. Widespread internet usage and the emergence of social networks have brought a new impetus to social and political debate. And it’s probably fine that there is an alternative arena for discussions, news and so on. The problem is that the rules of the game are very different. Television channels relay a censored picture of the state of affairs in the country, while Facebook, at the other extreme, provides complete and almost limitless freedom of discussion. This bifurcation is widening; the gap between them is growing. Viewers of state television and online communities are virtually the same people. In fact the authorities have confirmed through their senior leaders that they closely follow the Abkhaz internet community, while the online community in turn follows official sources. Yes, there are brief moments of pluralism on television, but this is mainly during election campaigns or reporting on opposition rallies or conventions. The experience of the Arab Spring suggests that neglecting sentiments prevailing in online communities is unwise and nonchalant to say the least, and responding to them indirectly is also ineffective.

The problems facing the country are increasing and becoming more acute – for the authorities, for the people and for the survival of the country as a whole. Here is just a short list for reference: illegal issue of passports in the eastern regions of Abkhazia and related problems of integration of that region; total unemployment; high levels of criminality; drug addiction; crises in the banking sector and the economy in general; ideological issues; demographics; the environment; language preservation and development; repatriation; the schism in the church and interfaith issues in general, and so on. Each of these problems has their own complexities and related problems. Probably the most overarching theme is the search for a redefinition and articulation of a national idea for Abkhazia. The people of Abkhazia won the war, survived years of blockade and lived to see international recognition from a small number of states. However, the people now barely subsist with virtually no economy and with a budget largely thrown together from outside.

Facebook has provided its heroes and villains: experts knowledgeable in their profession or topic, as well as dilettantes and opportunists. The state apparatus can boast of the same colourful composition. It is becoming apparent that it is necessary to bring together all those interested in the future development of Abkhazia onto a common platform. The state faces huge global threats and major opportunities at the same time, and creative energy needs to be channelled in the right direction. The right direction of development will only become apparent through debates conducted according to rules worthy of our mentality and etiquette. We need intelligent, unbiased facilitators – or rather not only intelligent but also wise. We need a platform for national dialogue.

With the current balance of forces within and outside the country, the authorities are virtually doomed to collapse. Yet there is no sign of who would replace them – even by impeachment – and be able to take the country out of deep crisis. We need new ideas, new policies, and new times in general. Modernisation needs to be planned for, including reform of AGTRK: it can’t be done on the hoof. But it will take some time, and in the meantime the crisis will only grow. Therefore, the appearance of public platforms, especially on national television, could provide a space for dialogue and help us respond in a timely manner to the threats and challenges facing the country. Live shows and talk shows are the best way to breed a new generation of politicians and public figures.

Like in the old days, AGTRK could once again play an important and historical role in state formation.


Read other articles in the ‘Tolerance and conflict’ series here or follow the links below for the individual articles:


[1] The election results were contested. Bagapsh won 50.08% of the vote and Khadzhimba demanded a second round. The official media refused to acknowledge Bagapsh’s victory and the standoff split Abkhaz society in two. After negotiations, a compromise solution was found and a second round of elections were held in January 2005, which were won by Bagapsh.