Georgia cuts access to Russian websites, TV news

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian authorities have blocked most access to Russian news broadcasters and websites since the outbreak of the conflict with Moscow.

Russian soldiers travel on top of an amoured vehicle on a road near the Georgian town of Gori August 18, 2008. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Georgia’s Interior Ministry said the action was not anti-democratic, but Russian broadcasts could not be allowed to “scare our population”.

A war over the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia has unleashed high emotion in Russia and Georgia, reflected in coverage on both state and private channels.

“People from the (Georgian) security agencies asked me to block Russian sites,” Mamia Sanadiradze, founder and CEO of the biggest Georgian internet service provider, Caucasus Online, told Reuters.

“There were threats from viruses, we faced disinformation and so on,” said Sanadiradze, whose company is seeking a listing on the London Stock Exchange. “I hope that when war is over, we will unblock these sites.”

Russian-language websites were still available on other, smaller providers.

Georgian media, private and state-owned, are generally under the sway of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who promotes his country as a Western-style democracy.

However, the country’s main opposition television station was shut by the Interior Ministry at gunpoint in November and some of its equipment was smashed up. Human rights groups have criticized Saakashvili’s approach to media freedom

Nana Namoradze, program director of the biggest cable TV channel, Ayety, said Russian news channels, but not those showing purely entertainment, films and sport, had been switched off on the order of the Communication Commission.

“The reason is that they broadcast disinformation during the war that affects our population badly and puts people under stress,” he told Reuters.

Shota Utiashvili, head of the analytical department of the Interior Ministry, saw nothing undemocratic in the action.

“Russia doesn’t have media at all,” he told Reuters. “I would not call it media. What they broadcast and print is just propaganda and we don’t want to scare our population with this disinformation.

“When we let them broadcast again, we don’t know. Let’s see.”

Russia’s television news is tightly controlled by the Kremlin. Coverage of the war has heavily emphasized official statements from Moscow and the suffering of ordinary people in South Ossetia, with little coverage from Georgia proper.

The Russian news channels can still be watched by satellite.

Most people in Georgia, a country ruled from Moscow since 19th century imperial conquests until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, can speak Russian.

(Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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