Communications Commission Membership – Privilege of Incumbent Commissioners and Employees
In recent years, there have been questions whether the competitions to select members of the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) have been carried out as a sound, competitive and independent process. The prevailing practice creates an impression of an imitated competition, which, as a result, diminishes the Commission’s undoubtedly important role and significance in the current politicized environment, strengthens the ruling authority’s influence on the agency, and discourages professional, independent cadres from participating in the selection process.
According to the law, the GNCC is a regulatory body for electronic communications and broadcasting, whose work should be independent. However, the work of the Commission has been criticized on multiple occasions over the agency’s biased decisions and questionable initiatives aimed at restricting the expression of critical opinions in the country.
A new competition to fill the vacancy at the GNCC
The Commission is waiting for the selection of a new commissioner. Currently, the Commission has four members, and open competition has been announced to fill the fifth, vacant seat. Four candidates have submitted to the Government Administration their applications for the vacancy: Nino Kubinidze, Ivane Makharadze, Mariam Sulaberidze, and Irine Verdzeuli. Ultimately, the first three candidates were presented to the Parliament. The Parliament will elect the new Commission member from the selected candidates by the majority of its total composition.
What we know about the candidates
Ivane Makharadze – current employee of the GNCC. Since 2013, Makharadze has been the head of the Audio-Visual Media Services/Broadcasting Regulation Department. He has worked at the Commission in various capacities since 2007. Makharadze graduated from the Faculty of International Law and International Relations at Tbilisi State University and holds a Master’s degree in European Law from the Europa Institut of Saarland University.
Together with the incumbent commissioners, Ivane Makharadze’s department actively supported a number of questionable proposals or interpretations of the law prepared by the Commission with regard to the regulation of hate speech or a controversial dispute launched against Mtavari Arkhi claiming that a story aired by the broadcaster contained obscenity, in which the Commission, while finding that the channel had violated the law, relieved Mtavari Arkhi from administrative responsibility.
Mariam Sulaberidze is a former employee of the Communications Commission. For several months, she held the position of Special Administrator of Caucasus Online. This position was introduced after controversial amendments were made to the Law on Electronic Communications upon the proposal of the GNCC. The amendments were criticised by both local organisations and the Venice Commission.
In 2012-2020, Mariam Sulaberidze held various positions at GNCC, including working as the head of the International Relations and Project Management Service. Since June 2020, she has been the director of N(N)LP OpenNet. OpenNet is implementing the state programme on broadband, fibre-optic infrastructure development in the country.
In 2011-2012, Mariam Sulaberidze was acting as the head of the Operators Relations Service at Silknet. Her experience includes working for other communications companies, such as United Telecom and Telenet. She holds a Master’s degree in Engineering Project Management from Tbilisi Technical University / Manchester Metropolitan University. She also has a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Caucasus Business School.
Nino Kubinidze is the director of World Business Solutions, Information Technologies branch of Georgian Railway. In 2016-2020, she was the director of N(N)LP OpenNet. Under her management, N(N)LP OpenNet failed to implement the universal internetisation project announced by the government.
At various times, Nino Kubinidze worked as an advisor at the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development and was the chairperson of the LEPL Digital Broadcasting Agency. Kubinidze worked as a deputy director of the Additional Services Department at Magticom. She has a PhD in Telecommunications and Electronic Engineering from the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems of Electronic and Computer Engineering at University of Limerick.
Successful careers of incumbent commissioners and employees
In recent years, the process of selection and election as a commissioner has been marred by two alarming trends, namely, weak competition and election of incumbent commissioners or employees as new commissioners by the ruling authority. Out of the four members in the five-member Commission, two were incumbent commissioners and two – employees. On the three-strong list of candidates presented to the Parliament at present, one is an incumbent member and the other – a former employee of the Commission.
The announced competitions are marked by a low number of participants, even though the remuneration of the GNCC members is one of the highest in the country. According to the 2020 asset declarations, an average monthly salary of a Commission member exceeds GEL 15,000. It is a fact that persons working in the sphere of communications do not feel that election as a Commission member is a process independent from political influence and selection of candidates is based solely on their professionalism and qualification. This trend effectively encourages the incumbent commissioners and employees to be unconditionally sympathetic to the ruling political force or the supervisors of the regulatory body.
Kakhi Bekauri has been a commissioner since 2014 and the GNCC chairperson since 2017. Bekauri was elected a member of the Commission for the second time in 2019. Only four candidates expressed their wish to participate in the competition and three people were eventually presented to the Parliament: incumbent commissioner Kakhi Bekauri, Broadcasting Department head Ivane Makharadze, and International Relations and Project Management Service head Mariam Sulaberidze. Shortly before he was elected as a commissioner, a controversial amendment was made to the Law on Broadcasting, abolishing a ban on electing the same commissioner to the post of the chairperson for more than one term. The amendments were criticised due to the lack of substantiation, and legitimate suspicions were expressed that the law “was made to fit Kakhi Bekauri”. After being elected a commissioner, Kakhi Bekauri was elected the Commission chairperson for the second time in 2020.
Vakhtang Abashidze has been a commissioner since 2014 and chaired the GNCC in 2014-2017. Under the Georgian Dream government, Vakhtang Abashidze was elected a member of the Commission for the second time in 2020. Out of six participants of the competition, three were presented to the Parliament: incumbent commissioner Vakhtang Abashidze, incumbent member of the Advisory Board of the GNCC Staff, and a former employee. In 2000-2004, Vakhtang Abashidze was a member and the chairperson of the GNCC.
Two new commissioners of the regulatory body were elected several months ago. Both were employees of the GNCC: Natia Kukuladze was the head of the Media Literacy Development Department, while Ekaterine Imedadze led the Telecommunications Market Regulation Department. The competition to fill their posts was not strong: only 12 people expressed their wish to become commissioners when the competition to fill two vacancies was announced. Eventually, six candidates were presented to the Parliament, five of whom were incumbent and one – former employee of the GNCC.