February 8 clashes outside the National Library: as political tensions soar, so does bias in TV reporting
Protesters and representatives of the former government clashed outside the National Parliamentary Library on February 8, where President Mikheil Saakashvili was scheduled to deliver his annual speech to Parliament. All major channels aired live broadcasts of the events for several hours and followed up during their prime-time news programs.
Edited news reports summarizing the events aired by several channels showed a clear political bias. The clashes highlighted the strong tensions between the opposition United National Movement (UNM) of President Mikheil Saakashvili and the ruling Georgian Dream coalition of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. Given the tense political situation, in which both political groups were trying to spin events in their favor, major TV stations fell back into their habit of covering events with a strong political bias.
TV9 and Imedi, at least in edited summaries of the events, spun the events in favor of the Georgian Dream while Rustavi 2 provided coverage favoring the UNM, with Maestro TV and the Georgian Public Broadcaster’s Channel 1 providing a more nuanced and fair coverage of the clashes.
TV9, owned by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s family, reported on Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili taking the situation “under personal control” and reported the police was “in full control”. TV9’s reporters stressed that UNM members did not use a police corridor, which, according to TV9, resulted in confrontation with the protesters. TV9 pointed out that 12 protesters were hurt in the clash and reported that there was no information about UNM members being injured. while a UNM Member of Parliament, Chiora Taktakishvili, was shown on screen with a bleeding nose. (Update: We recognize that during the live coverage, a TV9 reporter was in a stressful situation and that he was not aware what images were showed in the feed coming from the studio while he was providing commentary. This could be a reason why his comments and the images did not aline.) However, TV9 also made space for statements that were critical of the police’s performance during its live coverage (including an interview with TI Georgia’s executive director).
On February 10, TV9 went back reporting on the details of the incident. A two-minute report focused on scenes showing UNM members fighting with protesters. The report fails to show the full context of events, creating the impression that only UNM members were to blame, as the reporter referred to them as being “aggressive.”
(Update: In this blog we pay more attention to the coverage of TV9 over several days than on the coverage of other channels. We think that TV9, as a station owned by the family of the current Prime Minister, can and sould be subject to a high level of scrutiny, as we beleive that, in general, politics and the media should remain seperate pillars in a democratic system of checks and balances.)
Imedi TV, now back in the ownership of the family of the late oligarch Badri Paatarkatsishvili, covered the events in a more neutral way and reported that the police had mobilized but the situation nonetheless went out of control in number of occasions.
A 12-minute edited report aired on Friday focused on Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava (UNM), who, upon arriving at the National Library, called on the protesters “to put on a show”. The report also highlighted that some UNM members were attacked by protesters.
On Saturday, Imedi TV released new footage, concentrating on how UNM members attacked the protesters. As in case of TV9, this footage did not show the full context of events, only the parts of it in which UNM members were not seen in the best light.
Rustavi 2, owned by individuals with ties to the United National Movement, also covered the events live from 18:00 17:00 and went back on recollecting the events in the main news program at 21:00. The report highlighted specific cases of attacks against the members of the UNM and reflected on the preparations of the protesters, showing demonstrators who were making aggressive comments about former government officials.
Rustavi 2 did not mention provocations by UNM members, which became a focus point for Imedi TV and TV9. However, Rustavi 2 aired comments of Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, representing the government’s view on the events.
After having covered the events live for several hours, Maestro offered a summary of the main developments of the clashes later that night. The report presented several comments of protesters and from UNM representatives. In one shot, MP Levan Bezhashvili (UNM) was shown swearing at protesters and police. Overall, the report did not focus on depicting UNM members in a negative light.
Georgian Public Broadcaster
The Georgian Public Broadcaster’s (GPB) Channel 1 started reporting from outside the National Parliamentary Library at 18:00 and continued its coverage until late in the evening. The reporting were more or less impartial in describing the events and highlighted that protesters were preventing guests from entering the building. GBP’s reporters also stressed several times that the police was unable to control the situation. However, no open criticism of the actions or inactions of the police was voiced. The GPB reports did not mention provocations from representatives of the United National Movement – an aspect that was highlighted by other channels.
The G-MEDIA program is made possible by support from the American people through USAID. The content and opinions expressed herein are those of Transparency International Georgia and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Government, USAID or IREX.