Is political advertising prohibited outside the election period?
On June 15, the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) stated that TV company Rustavi 2 had violated the law by airing political advertising outside the election period. The case was precedential and the decision essentially prohibited all broadcasters from airing political ads outside election periods. The GNCC issued a simple warning to Rustavi 2, since this case was the first of its kind considered by the Commission. We believe that political advertising should not be prohibited outside the election period, but rather should be placed under certain regulations.
The case involved Rustavi 2 airing an ad of a political party European Georgia. The ad was discovered by the GNCC monitors. The Commission considered the case under Article 661 of the Law on Broadcasting, according to which, administrative bodies, political parties, public officials or public servants are prohibited from funding the Public Broadcaster, as well as purchasing its services and funding, directly or indirectly, of the production or airing of its programs.
Rustavi 2 representatives stated during the GNCC meeting that the law does not directly prohibit airing of political ads outside the election period. According to them, “literal interpretation of this norm would mean that political parties are not allowed to purchase ads at all, including during the pre-election period, since it does not specifically indicate the pre-election related norms defined by the Election Code.”
The Commission did not agree with the arguments presented by Rustavi 2 and stated that “prohibition on the funding of the Public Broadcaster by political parties outside the election period is aimed at protecting the broadcaster from political influence, ensuring its impartiality, and free and pluralistic debate, which strengthens the fundamental role of the freedom of expression in a democratic society.”
Rustavi 2 also stated during the meeting that the case was directed specifically against their company. According to them, while other TV channels (e.g. Imedi and Obiektivi) also engaged in this practice, the GNCC monitors reacted only in case of Rustavi 2. The Commission requested information from these two TV companies; Imedi denied the information, while Obiektivi ignored the Commission’s request.
Transparency International Georgia (TI Georgia) requested the State Audit Office (SAO) to disclose copies of advertising service agreements between TV company Obiektivi and the political party Alliance of Patriots since 2016. The SAO provided only one contract that was signed on August 26, 2016. Apparently, the Alliance of Patriots had not sent earlier advertising contracts to the SAO. The fact that Obiektivi had aired ads for this party prior to August 26 was confirmed by the SAO representative as well as TI Georgia’s monitoring of paid political advertising.
The SAO also provided us with an agreement, according to which, Obiektivi had to air political ads of Alliance of Patriots from February 1, 2015 to January 1, 2016 (which included a non-election period). The payment amount would be determined based on the tariff set by the broadcaster in accordance with this agreement, and would be paid based on monthly annexes to the agreement. The agreement was not accompanied by annexes on the number of times Obiektivi aired ads for Alliance of Patriots, however, the existence of this agreement already indicates that such ads were being aired by the TV company. The GNCC must investigate this case in order to confirm that it does not discriminate against specific TV companies and to dispel any doubts about the subjectivity and selectiveness of its approach.
TI Georgia has written about the problem of political ads outside the election period in 2016, where we stressed the importance of introducing relevant regulations. Our recommendations differed in principle from the decision made by the GNCC. Instead of prohibiting political advertising outside the election period, we called for the regulations on political advertising during the election period to be extended to the non-election period as well. Namely:
- Broadcasters should submit information about paid political ad tariffs and services already provided to the Georgian National Communication Commission (GNCC). This also includes publishing of this information on TV Company’s websites in accordance to the Code of Conduct of Broadcasters.
- Tariffs of paid political ads during non-election period should also be the same for all political parties and other persons having declared election purposes.
- When broadcasting a political advertisement, the screen corner should display either ‘paid political advertising’ or ‘free political advertising’. Such advertisements should be accompanied with sign language interpretation.
The fact that the GNCC had a different position on this issue just last year raises further questions. According to www.mediachecker.ge, the Commission shared TI Georgia’s opinion that the regulations on political advertising during the election period should extend to the non-election period as well and that legislative changes would have to be made to this end. It is unclear why the GNCC changed its position and why it chose to prohibit such advertising altogether.
Transparency International Georgia believes that political advertising should not be prohibited outside the election period and that Article 661 of the Law on Broadcasting should not be left open to interpretation.