By Guy Faulconbridge
MOSCOW, Nov 9 (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. described as "totally outrageous" on Friday the storming of its Georgian television station Imedi by armed police, saying they caused "very extensive" damage.
Georgian special forces charged the station on Wednesday night, forcing staff to the floor and holding guns to their heads before smashing equipment and blacking out the signal, witnesses said.
"Two hundred, I don’t know what they were, special police, thugs, came into the station, did not serve any papers, did not say why they were there," News Corp. executive vice-president Martin Pompadur told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"I have no idea who gave them the authorisation, someone in the government I assume. And they destroyed the station, they destroyed the control room, they destroyed equipment, they obviously had been given instructions to do just that".
Imedi, which had broadcast extensive coverage of anti- government protests, remains off the air. Under President Mikhail Saakashvili’s 15-day state of emergency, only government media are allowed to broadcast news and big meetings are banned.
Pompadur said News Corp. were very surprised by the Georgian government action because Saakashvili was a pro-American leader and News Corp. was a U.S. company. President George W. Bush has called Georgia a "beacon of democracy" under Saakashvili.
"This has been the only independent voice in the country so for this guy (Saakashvili) to be so insecure and to think that because the media has been presenting the news which is sometimes not to his liking that he has to go to this extreme, it is pretty crazy," he said.
Imedi was founded and owned by Georgian billionaire tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, a key opposition figure who wants to end Saakashvili’s rule.
News Corp. co-owns the station but Patarkatsishvili gave News Corp. a power of attorney over his shares for one year last month, effectively granting the Murdoch company full control.
"Although Imedi is managed by News Corp. It is still controlled by Patarkatsishvili," Giga Bokeria, a close Saakashvili ally and member of parliament, told Reuters.
"Imedi TV was clearly aggravating tension during protests in the streets. Patarkatsishvili was using this TV for his own purposes," he said.
Pompadur said the station’s news coverage was balanced.
"We are in favour of presenting balanced, fair, independent news, which obviously is sometimes critical of the president, which people can interpret that we are favouring Russia," he said.
Human rights groups have called on Saakashvili to restore Imedi and other opposition media to the air as quickly as possible. The Georgian parliament defied this pressure on Friday, endorsing Saakashvili’s state of emergency for 15 days.
Pompadur said Imedi "could not go on the air even if it wanted to" at present because the damage had been so extensive. (Writing by Michael Stott, editing by Peter Millership)