Is Television a Human Right?

A jailed politician in Georgia recently went on a hunger strike for the right to watch the tube. And it's not the craziest thing prisoners have successfully lobbied for.
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Former Georgian prime minister Vano Merabishvili (C) arrives to attend a preliminary hearing of his case at the court in Kutaisi, Georgia on May 22, 2013. (Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters)

During his years as one of Georgia's most indomitable political figures, Vano Merabishvili occasionally enjoyed showing a softer, more humorous side by appearing on television talk shows.

Even months after he was replaced as prime minister by rival Bidzina Ivanishvili, he was drawing uproarious laughter with charismatic appearances on programs like "Vano's Show," a nighttime chat fest presented by another Vano, Javakhishvili.

"The new government won't tolerate listening in on telephone calls, so now you can say whatever you want over the phone," Merabishvili said in one appearance, in an irreverent nod to his own administration's controversial reputation for phone-tapping.

The spot proved such a hit that he was even invited to step in as an appropriately named guest host.

But if Merabishvili once harbored dreams of being on television, more recently his wishes have focused on something simpler: just having one.

Merabishvili -- who is currently in detention facing charges including abuse of office during his years as a member of President Mikheil Saakashvili's powerful inner circle - this week staged a brisk, two-day hunger strike to demand a TV be installed in his cell.

Prison officials said on June 19 that Merabishvili, a once-feared interior minister and secretary-general of Saakashvili's United National Movement, had resumed eating after receiving assurances he would receive a television in the coming days.

Prisons Minister Sozar Subari said authorities must now determine how to install a device in Merabishvili's cell in Tbilisi's Matrosov prison, which is currently TV-free.

"[Merabishvili] has access to media. He can get the news," Subari says. "Regarding the TV, I have already told the prison administration and either today or tomorrow he should have it. Exactly when and how, that is up to the prison administration."

Penitentiary authorities also appear to have met other demands by Merabishvili, including giving his family the right to manage his bank accounts.

But it was the need for small-screen diversion that appears to have loomed especially large in the minds of Merabishvili and his supporters ever since his detention late last month.

Krzysztof Lisek, a Polish member of the European Parliament, criticized the situation after visiting Merabishvili in early June, saying the absence of a TV had cut Merabishvili off from news developments.

Prison officials at the time argued Merabishvili had access to newspapers and was an "ordinary prisoner" with no right to special extras like TV, with its access to everything from political talk shows to Latin soap operas and Western serials like "The Sopranos."

Georgian Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, however, suggested Merabishvili might eventually be given a TV and radio as "encouragement" if he behaved appropriately in detention.

The United Nations recommends "standard minimum" rules for treatment of prisoners, including access to books and "important" news items through newspapers, magazines, and wireless transmissions.

The guidelines, issued in 1955, make no special mention of TV.

But at least one ruling by the European Court of Human Rights has defended access to television as a right for ordinary citizens.

The Strasbourg court ruled in 2011 that satellite dishes were essential to immigrants and diaspora communities because they allowed them to practice their religions by receiving programming from their home countries.

Merabishvili is not the first inmate to use a hunger strike or other extreme measures to demand access to electronic entertainment or better prison conditions.

In Australia, a convicted serial killer in 2011 staged an unsuccessful nine-day fast to petition for the right to a Sony Playstation games console.

Last year, Norway's Anders Behring Breivik -- convicted of killing 77 people in the Oslo and Utoeya massacres -- stopped short of staging a hunger strike but filed a 27-page complaint with Norwegian prison officials saying he was being subjected to "inhumane" conditions in his prison cell, including cold coffee and a ban on skin moisturizer.

In other instances, however, inmates have successfully petitioned for a surprising range of prisoner rights.

In Germany's southern Bavarian region, for example, prisoners have been granted the right to drink beer.

And in 2007, the ECHR ruled that a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in England was allowed to use artificial insemination to father children, defending "family life" as a basic human right.

Merabishvili may eventually take his case to the Strasbourg court, as well - not to talk about television but to challenge his detention.

The Saakashvili ally, who was detained on May 21, has been charged with using his position of authority to create jobs for his party's supporters and forcibly disperse protesters during a 2011 protest rally. He could face 12 years in jail if convicted.

He and his supporters say his arrest is part of a vindictive campaign by Ivanishvili to punish allies of outgoing President Saakashvili.

U.S. and EU lawmakers have urged the Ivanishvili administration not to subject political rivals to selective justice.

It is unclear whether Merabishvili's dramatic appeal for a television will undermine his more serious arguments about unjust political persecution -- particularly at a time when the Georgian Interior Ministry is preparing to destroy volumes of the invasive surveillance tapes that Merabishvili played for laughs on "Vano's Show."

The television affair also comes as officials mull whether to air fresh video evidence of widespread rape and torture in Georgia's prisons.

Some observers have suggested, with a distinct note of schadenfreude, that the videos may make appropriate viewing for Merabishvili on his hard-won TV as he contemplates the possibility of spending the next 12 years in jail.


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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