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Pressing the Press

By Messenger Staff
Tuesday, December 6
We in Georgia have been overwhelmed with different interesting topics recently such as the disputed elections in rebel South Ossetia, the elections in Russia on Sunday, passions over Maestro TV and so on. In the midst of all this, the public forgot almost completely about the new steps to be made by Tbilisiís Mayor Office concerning press distribution. The mayor's office plans to organize new tenders to install a thousand kiosks around Tbilisi which would sell newspapers together with other everyday products, such as candies, cigarettes, chewing gum and perhaps even fast food.

Independent media producers and outlets immediately protested this decision claiming that it was targeted against the freedom of the press for a variety of reasons. The first argument is that out of the different segments of the media, TV, radio, the published press and the internet, the most independent is the printed media. TV stations are mostly controlled by the state and even the public broadcaster is mostly subordinated to the government rather than to the public. As for the printed media it embraces around 15% of the population providing it with impartial news and comment about the news. Auctioning off the right to sell the printed press contains the distinct threat of rigged tenders and government controlled press vendors. The second argument is that selling different products for everyday needs diminishes the interests of the kiosk owners towards the printed media. Even technically the press needs more space to display when compared to cigarettes, chewing gum or other items and it is obvious that potential clients will be mostly buying these smaller items than papers or magazines. There is a worry that traders will not allow newspapers to enter kiosks at all eventually or give preferences to only certain papers and magazines. Thus the market, which is already quite small for Georgian papers, will become even smaller.

Next argument goes as follows: Georgia as a country is striving to enter the EU and undertook commitments to facilitate the freedom of the media and freedom of expression. Therefore, considering the peculiar situation of the media in Georgia, and the fact that the media faces a shallow market for advertisements, the government should support media distribution efforts, including newspapers and magazines which are suffocating in the market. It is in the best interests of the country to improve its democratic image by supporting the media rather than creating obstacles. Which interpretation you take of these reforms depends on how much trust can be put in the tender on the kiosks and why the city government chose to take this step of closing and reopening press vendors now.

Most suspect, if not realise, that the range and depth of printed media is under attack through the reforms. Representatives of the Georgian media already held a rally in front of the mayor's office last week. They even planned to continue and organize yet another rally in front of the presidentís administration but developments with Maestro TV station and above mentioned elections moved the concentration of the media away from this subject onto others.

Just like in England, where working people used to buy fish and chips wrapped in newspapers, perhaps Tbilisi mayorís office wants to revive this English tradition in Georgia and wrap khachapuri or kebabs in print. That is a more likely justification for this new step than protecting freedom of the speech and freedom of the press.