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How Georgia greeted World Press Freedom Day

By Messenger Staff
Tuesday, May 5
May 3 was World Press Freedom Day. Usually on this day countries publish information concerning freedom of the media and evaluate their achievements and setbacks, in particular when they wish to adopt the standards of democratic states.

Media freedom is a much-discussed issue in Georgia, and the opposition often accuses the current administration of violating it. According to the Freedom House rating the media in Georgia is more free than in neighbouring countries, but this is not a source of satisfaction as the country seeks a partnership with the EU, if not membership of it, yet still falls well short of accepted Western standards in this area.

In Georgia there is a considerable difference between the print and electronic media, with the print media being more open than the electronic. There are many print media titles in Georgia and most of these are independent and can openly express their opinions. There are cases in which certain print media owners complain of violations of press freedom by the administration, particularly in the regions, but still the print media is in a far better condition than the electronic.

There are different reasons for this. Most of the newspapers in Georgia have a very small circulation. However cheap they are newspapers still cost money, and if we consider that nearly three quarters of the Georgian population lives on or below the poverty line we see that not everybody can buy several newspapers or even one. Therefore the printed word reaches a considerably smaller audience than the content of a TV broadcast and is correspondingly ignored by state officials. For instance, an article could appear in a newspaper about an abuse of consumer rights or human rights but neither the police nor any official body would respond to the article and launch an investigation into the incident or take any action. So as the popular saying goes in Georgia, write and read - nobody cares. So the tendency is for the administration to be more tolerant of the printed media by default, simply by ignoring it.

An absolutely different approach is taken to the electronic media and TV in particular. One of the most important factors in the success of the Rose Revolution was the involvement of TV stations, particularly Rustavi 2. This station undertook very intensive and efficient propaganda work and played an absolutely invaluable organising role, directing and coordinating all the activities carried out countrywide by the then opposition forces led by Saakashvili. Therefore the importance of national TV can hardly be overestimated. The current administration has done its utmost to keep control of the electronic media to prevent any kind of opposing ideas being transmitted around the country and further disseminated to the population.

In the second half of 2007, when the opposition started to become more powerful, it was supported by the Imedi TV channel owned by the opposition-oriented tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili. This station managed to disseminate pro-opposition propaganda quite successfully. Therefore on 7 November 2007 when the protestors in Tbilisi were brutally dispersed the next thing the Government did was raid Imedi TV, throw out the journalists, break its equipment and stop its transmissions. No legal investigation of the case has been begun, let alone completed, and there is no hope of this being done under this administration.

At this point there were four major nationally-broadcast TV stations and only Imedi was pro-opposition, the other three being Rustavi 2, the Georgian Public Broadcaster-the first channel and Mze. The opposition viewpoint could only be heard on Imedi and Kavkasia, whose broadcast area barely covers the capital. But after the 7 November raid there was no opposition channel covering the whole of Georgia, and since then the administration has strengthen its control of the media space even more. Mze has become an entertainment channel, Imedi, through some legally controversial manipulations, is now pro-Government and Georgian Public Broadcaster, instead of being genuinely public, has become more pro-Government as the opposition claims. Today the only pro-opposition TV stations are Kavkasia and Maestro which cover only Tbilisi whereas Rustavi 2, Mze, Imedi and also Alania and Adjara cover the entire country on behalf of the Government.

The true ownership of these TV stations is also an interesting issue. Absolutely no official information is available concerning the ownership of the TV stations loyal to the Government. They are registered in offshore zones and thus their owners’ names are unknown. The opposition claim that whoever the owners are they are in effect under the control of Saakashvili.

Yet another issue is the safety and freedom of their journalists and the conditions they work under. Both sides, mostly the Government but the opposition too, have expressed their intolerance of journalists. The rights of journalists are often violated, as for example recently when video and photo cameras of journalists were taken away and thrown into the river when they tried to take pictures of President Saakashvili dining in a restaurant in Old Tbilisi. The opposition are also treating some journalists in a very unpleasant way, demanding that they broadcast the news in a more objective way. The opposition however have certain grounds for doing this, as some journalists have distorted the real situation, for instance by deliberately diminishing how many people appear to be attending the rallies by the way they photograph them and so on.

The administration claims that it is ready to start a new wave of democratic reforms and international bodies confirm that ensuring the freedom of the media should be one of the main ones. A free media will also of course stimulate further reforms by increasing the quality and quantity of democratic debate and people’s participation in it.