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Poor assessment of Georgian media on World Press Freedom Day

By Gvantsa Gabekhadze
Friday, May 4
A roundtable to mark World Press Freedom Day was held at the Tbilisi Courtyard Marriott Hotel yesterday, hosted by USAID Mission Director Stephen Haykin, with the participation of NGOs, civil society representatives, government members, and journalists. The topic of discussion was the Georgian media landscape in the context of the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Haykin remarked that television is currently the most important lever of spreading information in Georgia “thus, ensuring a balanced situation in Georgian TV media is crucial for holding free elections in the state”.

However, panel members were almost universally pessimistic about the ability to achieve such a balance. Mathias Huter, of Transparency International Georgia, Georgians have an incorrect perception of a free press. “The main problem, which is regularly voiced, is that opposition views do not reach the public. There is a polarized media reality in the country, either government or opposition. There is no discussion that a media is needed that would deliver both government and opposition views”.

A representative of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, Eka Popkhadze, outlined the major problems that journalists frequently face – “inaccessibility of public information and disrupting journalists while [they] undertake their professional activities.” She explained that journalists are prevented from receiving information about budget expenses, how much money is being spent on bonuses for government representatives, and other information that might reveal some budgetary violations or signs of corruption. “We lost every trial we, together with journalists, [fought] regarding the issue. The court, which unfortunately does the same as the government, always says that this is personal information, when through the law such information must be public”.

Popkhadze also touched upon the recent actions carried out by the monitoring service of the Chamber of Control in the rural regions, stating, “This one of the examples of when journalists were [prevented] from undertaking professional activities”.

Representative of the Civil Development Institute, Ia Antadze, said that the Georgian media does not “fulfill its role”, especially during the campaign period. She remarked that the media should facilitate debates and deliver “real information”.

Member of the Media Group, Shorena Shaverdashvili, spoke about why this is so. “The government finances and encourages only those media outlets, which are liberal towards the authorities and broadcast only such information that is in the government’s interest. The government also influences the business sector, which [buys] commercial [time] mainly on those media outlets which are pro-government”.

The editor-in-chief of Rezonansi, Lasha Tughushi, built on Shaverdashvili’s words, saying “There is fight between the independent media and the government and not a concurrence”.

The roundtable also raised the issue of media in rural areas. “The media outlets there are directly under government control and people in the regions are practically in a political vacuum. They even refuse to broadcast the opposition’s commercials. Why do they do that when commercials are one of the main [sources of] income for them, if there is no governmental interference?” Nino Jangirashvili, a representative of Maestro TV, asked. She also claimed that those companies who buy commercial time on those media outlets that do not serve the government’s interest face problems with taxes or similar bureaucracy.

In response representative of the National Security Council Tamar Kintsurashvili said those accusations were exaggerated. “There were lots of corrections carried out in the legislation with the participation of civil society, media, or NGO representatives. Of course, there are some problems, but we are collaborating with interested parties and trying to eradicate [the problems].”

Kintsurashvili blames any issues with commercial time on the market. “Companies place commercials on media outlets that are more popular and watched by most of the citizens. The government will not interfere in such an issue,” she maintained.

She also noted that a special understructure committee will be held at the Council, which will react to such violations during the election period. “Different structures will collaborate with each other and all interested sides to ensure a maximally healthy election reality. In addition, the fact that international organizations were invited by the government [to monitor the elections] is one more sign that it is the government’s wish, first of all, to encourage a maximally democratic situation in the state”.

As for the panel’s recommendations, many of the participants were doubtful that so many problems could be eradicated before the elections. Some suggested that the current media environment will encourage the re-election of the United National Movement.

A number of NGOs have already prepared reports to present to Parliament for discussion, in an attempt to achieve legislative change.

All panelists agreed that the citizens of Georgia must demand a free press in order to achieve a real outcome, and that it is each citizens’ right to receive impartial information.