Actions of GNCC point to use of administrative resources for election purposes
On September 25, the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) published a statement criticizing the time allocated for free political advertising by the TV channel Rustavi 2, and a separate statement criticizing the content of such ads aired by broadcasters. On the same day, GNCC Chairperson sent letters to all broadcasters requesting them to remove three ads from air on the basis of them being illegal. We believe that both of these actions cast doubt on the institutional impartiality of the regulator and contain signs of use of administrative resources for election purposes in favor of the ruling party candidate Salome Zurabishvili.
A statement of the GNCC and a letter from its Chairperson do not constitute legal acts and are not binding for broadcasters. Therefore, the Commission and its Chairperson have, in effect, issued a recommendation aimed at restricting specific broadcasters and political actors.
In its statement, the GNCC expresses concern about the increase of free political ad limit by Rustavi 2. Even though the Commission notes that the broadcaster’s decision is in line with the law, it is nevertheless concerned that the “ads are primarily aimed at discrediting a single presidential candidate and making sure that this candidate does not get elected”. The presidential candidate in question is Salome Zurabishvili, who is supported by the ruling Georgian Dream party.
The Georgian Election Code defines political/pre-election advertising as a commercial broadcast by the media aimed at promoting/hindering the election of an electoral subject. Therefore, the argument used by the GNCC is invalid, since election subjects have the right to place ads directed against other candidates. A broadcaster is also authorized by law to increase the time it allocates for free political ads as long as it is within the legal limit, which Rustavi 2 has not violated, and allow all qualified election subjects to place their ads on air without discrimination.
According to the letters sent to broadcasters by the GNCC Chairperson Bekauri, airing of an advertisement that is aimed at hindering the election of Salome Zurabishvili is illegal and, therefore, must be removed immediately. Bekauri presents the following arguments:
- One ad uses a clip from a political TV show with journalist Inga Grigolia. Georgian legislation prohibits the participation of news journalists or presenters in political ads.
Georgian law indeed prohibits news presenters from participating in political ads, however, the ad in question uses a clip from a TV program that clearly does not intend the participation of the journalist in a political ad of any election subject.
- The Commission states that the second ad insults Zurabishvili and refers to her as a traitor, “which violates ethical norms and denigrates the person."
We believe that such expressions should not be considered as a violation of ethical norms since political statements directed towards public figures are subject to a higher standard of freedom of expression by both Georgian law and international principles.
- Certain assessments used in one of the ads are obscene in nature.
Obscenity is defined by the Law on Broadcasting as an action which is in conflict with ethical norms established in society and which has no social and political, cultural, educational or scientific value. We believe that an ad that uses a statement made previously by an election subject to present them in a negative light in the eyes of the voters has political value, regardless of whether one agrees with it or not. Therefore, this type of advertising is in line with the law.
Consequently, it is unclear as to what legitimate aims the Commission's statement and its Chairperson’s letter have, especially since:
- Neither of them is aimed towards bringing about a legal outcome.
- The Commission’s statement disapproves of actions that are permitted by law while acknowledging that no law has been violated.
- The Chairperson’s letter attempts to interpret the law without the Commission has discussed this issue.
- Both are aimed at restricting the actions of TV companies and opposition political parties.
The actions of the GNCC and its Chairperson can be perceived as the use of administrative resources for election purposes since they serve the interests of one election subject and are directed against the interests of other election subjects. Therefore, we call on the National Communications Commission and its Chairperson to act within the limits established by law, abstain from similar statements / decisions and fulfill their functions impartially.