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.

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