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Freedom of speech setback

Monday, October 27
The freedom of speech situation in Georgia has often become a matter of discussion in Georgian society. The opposition, NGOs, NATO officials and visiting senior statesmen all stress the importance of this issue for the country’s democratic development.

A survey recently carried out by international organization Journalists Without Frontiers has shown that it is high time to start ringing alarm bells over the level of free speech in this country. The survey, based on research undertaken during the period November 1, 2007 to September 1, 2008, gives a ranking for each nation. Last year Georgia was 66th in this ranking. In the space of a year, it has fallen to 120th place, a shocking decline, particularly in a country which places great store on its relative position in international rankings such as GDP growth, Ease of Doing Business etcetera.

The ranking of each country is worked out using different criteria, such as the number of independent journalists and media outlets it has, the amount of opposition-inclined media, how much abuse of journalists’ rights goes on, how much pressure is put on journalists, how far journalists can access official information. In recent years Georgia has been progressing in these areas. In 2005 it was the 99th freest country, in 2006 89th, in 2007 66th. Now Georgia’s dramatic fall demonstrates that the ‘beacon of democracy’ the country thinks itself to be has faded considerably.

The report accompanying the rankings highlights the situation in two South Caucasus states, Georgia and Armenia. In both of these a State of Emergency was imposed, and media freedom was thus considerably restricted. Georgia experienced the added complication of war with Russia, which presumably contributed to the deterioration of the free media in this country, as there was pressure to produce propaganda-type journalism. However, this alone does not explain or justify the overall reduction in free speech we have witnessed since last November.

The Rose Revolution proved how powerful a weapon TV can be. Rustavi 2’s support of the Saakashvili-led opposition in 2003 was a major factor in its ultimate success. Realising this, the new administration slowly began exercising control over the TV stations by either closing them down or buying them by proxy. This was not difficult to do. The process would begin with Government-appointed financial administrators “finding” certain irregularities, which you will find in any company when you are the one making the rules. Confronted with possible penalties, TV station owners would have little choice but to either close down or to sell the company to someone approved by the Government. Another trick used was to suspend broadcasting licenses for different reasons, forcing advertising to go elsewhere and depriving companies of the income they needed to survive, though it mysteriously appeared again when new and “acceptable” owners took charge of those same companies. .

Independent journalist Ia Antadze has stated that today practically the whole Georgian TV industry is under administration control. Journalist Aleko Elisashvili says that there is an information vacuum in Georgia. The opposition, both the portion in Parliament and that outside it, is demanding that the state reveals the names of the real TV station owners. It also points out that when the media uncovers some scandal, almost no follow up steps are taken by state bodies, claiming this is evidence of collaboration between the two.

Former Parliament Chairperson Nino Burjanadze, now in opposition, condemns the freedom of speech situation on TV. One could be sarcastic, and comment that she did not make these observations when she was among the leadership, but has suddenly discovered a host of problems in the country now she is in opposition. But criticizing her for speaking out will not serve the cause of Georgian democracy. Burjanadze has in fact been rather straightforward in her general criticism of the authorities, accusing Saakashvili of betraying the people who supported the Rose Revolution and similar things.

If the President is honest, and we want to believe he is, he has to start his ‘New Wave of Democracy’ by freeing the TV from Government control. Further, he has to promote the expression of a diversity of opinions in the media, giving people a wider range of outlets they can believe and trust.