Policy recommendations to the new Parliament: Improving the media sector
In November, TI Georgia issued a set of policy recommendations for the new Parliament and government, highlighting key shortcommings in the media sector and suggestions of how to adress these issues.
The legal framework by and large provides sufficient protection of freedom of the media: the Georgian constitution protects freedom of speech and freedom of the media (Article 24), while the Criminal Code (Article 154) punishes illegal interference into journalists’ professional activities.
The Georgian Law on Broadcasting regulates radio and television, and the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) is charged with the issuing licenses for broadcasting activities and overseeing the sector. Temporary must-carry and must-offer regulation for TV channels has been included in the Election Code.
The Georgian Law on Electronic Communications regulates the rights and duties of those who own, use or provide services related to electronic communication including Internet service providers, (mobile) phone operators and broadcasters.
The Code of Conduct for Broadcasters was adopted by the GNCC, setting out self-regulatory principles, rules and guidelines for TV and radio stations on how to produce their news and programs in line with ethical and professional standards.
Georgian National Communications Commission
The Georgian National Communications Commission is the regulator overseeing broadcasting and telecommunications, and plays a crucial role in ensuring a fair and competitive media environment. In order to play this role, the GNCC needs to be fully independent from politics. A number of the GNCC’s decisions over the past few years have been perceived as arbitrary and the regulator has not been seen as sufficiently neutral and independent. Media reports and several civil society organizations have highlighted a perceived conflict of interest of the Chairman of the Commission because of his private-sector activities. However, the Commission has professional and highly qualified staff, and has in recent months made efforts to become more open and transparent in its interactions with stakeholders.
- When parliament selects new Commissioners, it is of the utmost importance that the individuals selected are politically independent experts whose selection is based on their skills and merits, not on loyalty.
- The GNCC should be asked to nominate a permanent ombudsman to represent consumer interests and address complaints in the sphere of telecommunications and broadcasting. At present the position has only been filled on an interim basis.
- Upon request, the GNCC releases information on the monthly reported revenues of individual broadcasters. To further improve the financial transparency of license holders, the GNCC should regularly and proactively release data on the revenues and the sources of income of broadcasting license holders on its website in a machine readable format. A standardized reporting form for broadcasters should be developed and used, requiring broadcasters to disclose significant financial and in-kind contributions from their shareholders. At present, all sources of financing aside from advertising, product placement and sponsorship are summarized as ‘other revenues’: more detailed information on these funds should be required.
Georgian Public Broadcaster
The Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) is largely funded from the national budget. Its purpose is to provide news, analysis, educational and entertainment programs, striving to serve the interests of the Georgian public, not those of the government. It should play an important role in promoting and strengthen a pluralistic society by offering fora for public and political debates. The political independence of the GPB is a precondition to the broadcaster’s ability to fulfill its mission.
The GPB operates two radio stations and three TV stations: Channel 1, Channel 2 (focusing on parliamentary coverage) and Kanal PIK, a Russian language news channel operated by a private company, Alania LLC.
A dispute between the management of the GPB and Kanal PIK resulted in the suspension of PIK’s operation. A number of reporters and employees working for the GPB are employed through short-term contracts, a fact that puts journalists in a limbo and may impact their ability to work in an independent manner.
All political forces should refrain from using the GPB for their political goals.
- The GPB should be encouraged to air investigative reporting programs.
- As part of its mission, the GPB should be encouraged to air programs that focus on defending consumers’ interests and rights.
- The selection board of the GPB’s board of governors should be reviewed. The number of board members (currently 15) should be reduced, and candidates for this board should be selected in a transparent manner with involvement of the general public.
- The GPB should be encouraged to take steps in order to increase the reach of its programs through different technological platforms, most importantly it should work to increase the number of households that can access Channel 2.
De-politicization of the Media
The Georgian media landscape suffers from a high degree of polarization. The television sector is largely divided along partisan lines; news and analysis often comes with a strong political bias.
The new government should strive for a full separation between politics and the media. High-level public officials should have any business interests in the media sector, and neither should their family members or individuals who act on their behalf. The Ivanishvili family should consider selling all of their news media assets.
A number of media outlets that provide current affairs coverage are closely affiliated with top officials from the Georgina Dream, including TV9, its subsidiary Info9 and Gori-based Trialeti TV (in which TV9 holds a 10% stake). Stations including Rustavi 2, Real TV and Channel 25 are widely perceived as having close links with the opposition United National Movement. Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Cartu Foundation has in the past provided funding to the Organization to Support a Free Press, a non-profit entity founded by the Georgian Press Association, which distributes and sells newspapers and magazines in Tbilisi through a network of street vendors.
If politicians and public officials can directly or indirectly control media outlets – especially through ownership and by providing or withdrawing financial or regulatory support – the media will remain partisan, and the opposition and the government will continue to use their affiliated media outlets to support their political goals. Furthermore, political involvement in the media sector tends to undermine independent outlets’ financial sustainability.
- The new government and members of parliament should work towards the full de-politicization of the media sector. Public officials, including elected representatives, and should not have any direct or indirect ownership in media outlets or entities active in related sectors (such as advertising, technical infrastructure or the distribution of print media).
- The GNCC should apply relevant regulation to ensure a high level of competitiveness of the media and telecommunications sector, in order to promote growth, investment and development. Similarly, the State Procurement and Competition Agency should ensure a high level of competitiveness in sectors that are outside the GNCC’s regulatory mandate but important for the development of the media sector.
Protection of Journalists
In recent months, there have been several incidents of journalists being threatened, harassed, intimidated and attacked. In July, the office of Studio Monitor, the country’s leading team of investigative reporters, was robbed; in 2011, three photographers were charged with espionage in the service of Russia, imprisoned for several weeks and only released after signing plea bargaining agreements, which one of the photographers said he was coerced into signing. Cases of attacks against journalists and media workers have been well documented by media outlets, civil society organizations and the Ombudsman’s office.
In many cases, investigations were launched. However, the reluctance of law-enforcement and other government bodies to adequately investigate, prosecute and hold to account individuals who interfere in the work of journalists, or who intimidate or attack media representatives, has resulted in an atmosphere of impunity for attacks against the media.
Civil society groups, media associations and the office of the Ombudsman have repeatedly highlighted the importance of media freedom, and have underlined the state’s responsibility to ensure that all journalists can carry out their professional duties and are able to freely obtain information.
- The government and parliament should ensure that future and past attacks on the media – including the robbery of Studio Monitor, the photographers’ case, the events of May 26 2011, the cases of attempted blackmail of reporters of Batumelebi and TV9 and all other documented cases of intimidation, coercion and physical attacks against reporters – are fully investigated and that the perpetrators are held accountable.
- Timely and adequate responses to threats and violence against journalists must be a top priority for the government, in order to promote a climate of free speech and media freedom. The authorities should take steps to communicate the progress and findings of investigations in such cases with a view to ending the sense of impunity around attacks against the media.
- The government should consider establishing a media ombudsman (within the Ombudsman’s office), tasked with monitoring and protecting media freedom in Georgia, and serving as a mediator in cases of conflict between reporters and government bodies.
Introduce Must-carry/Must-offer Regulation
In past years, only a small share of the Georgian population had access to a pluralistic range of TV channels providing different political views and narratives in their news coverage. For years, most cable TV operators refused to include channels critical of the government (most prominently Kavkasia, Maestro and TV9) in their packages. Despite a broad interest from consumers in accessing these channels, operators often referred to ‘technical problems’, or provided other reasons for not making the stations available to their customers. At the same time, TV stations, including Imedi and Rustavi 2, have abused their market power and in coordinated action withdrew the permission to be broadcast by satellite and cable operators who were airing critical channels.
These market failures limited people’s right to receive balanced information on current affairs. In June 2012, the parliament agreed to amend the Election Code, introducing must carry/must offer regulations during the pre-election period, improving people’s access to a broader range of channels. Despite some problems related to the interpretation of the law, which caused some delay in the execution of must carry regulations, almost all cable operators and broadcasters complied.
After the elections, several cable operators temporarily suspended channels critical of the United National Movement from their packages, but after President Mikheil Saakashvili conceded defeat, most operators resumed transmission of these stations.
- In spite the fact that currently almost all cable operators are transmitting all major TV channels that provide newscasts, permanent must-carry and must-offer rules should be included in legislation regulating broadcasting and telecommunications. While seeking to avoid excessive regulation of the media and telecommunications sector, legislation should aim to ensure a fair competition environment and safeguard the public’s ability to access a broad range of television stations that provide current affairs coverage. It should be ensured that the regulatory burden on all affected stakeholders remains proportionate.
- New rules should be drafted only after a process involving consultations with stakeholders, including TV channels, satellite and cable operators, media associations and civil society. The rules included in the Electoral Code could serve as a base for discussion but are likely to require significant amendments and clarification. The regulation should also be subject to a review in 2015, after the switch to digital terrestrial broadcasting is completed.
Introduction of Digital Television Broadcasting
Within the framework of the Regional Agreement GE-06 (International Telecommunications Union, Geneva 2006) – a binding international treaty – Georgia and its neighbours committed to switching from analogue to digital terrestrial television broadcasting. This means that from 17 June 2015, TV stations that can be received via antenna will only be able to broadcast using new, digital technology. If Georgia fails to meet this important deadline, its neighbours would not be obliged to respect the so called ‘frequency borders’ which have already been defined.
Other parts of the world have already switched to digital terrestrial TV in recent years. The new technological standard (DVB-T2) will allow for a more efficient use of airwaves: more channels will be able to broadcast via antenna (the number needs to be defined by policy makers and the regulator) and thus reach most Georgian households. The sound and image quality of TV stations will be significantly improved, and channels can offer more services and information to their audience (including audio in different languages, subtitles and information about the programs they are airing). In addition, the switch to digital TV will free up frequencies which the government can choose allocate for other use (the so-called digital dividend), for example by auctioning them to companies to provide wireless internet access.
The process of switching to digital broadcasting not only requires changes in legislation and regulation. It also requires significant investments in new technologies: The state-owned company AlphaCom (or other operators) will need to upgrade Georgia’s TV towers and build digital transmission networks (so-called multiplexes), TV stations need to buy and install new equipment and households will be required to buy a decoder box in order to be able to watch TV via antenna on older television sets after June 2015. Because of the complexity of this process, and the required investments, the transition took several years in Western countries. The fact that Georgia has so far failed to begin the transition has raised concerns that it will not be able to meet the June 2015 deadline.
The Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development, which has been charged with outlining a strategy for the switch to digital broadcasting, has for more than one and a half years failed to produce any output on this matter.
The Georgian National Communications Commission, which has the capacity and technical expertise the ministry seems to lack, has recently published its vision for the switchover process, including practical suggestions on how the digitalisation process could be conducted.
- Concerted efforts will be necessary to ensure that Georgia fulfills its international commitment to switch to digital terrestrial broadcasting in the first half of 2015.
- The government should kickstart preparations for the transition by setting out the framework for the transition process, under the leadership of the Ministry of Economy.
- Most importantly, the process should be transparent and inclusive so that all stakeholders have an opportunity to engage and participate, and to raise their questions and concerns.
- An interagency group should be established to focus on the transition to digital broadcasting. Different working groups containing a broad range of experts and stakeholders should discuss and work out the details of this process. One such working group could unite representatives of TV channels and technical experts; another working group should focus on how consumers will be sufficiently informed about steps they have to take in order to manage the transition to digital TV.
Reform of Adjara TV
Adjara TV is a TV station operated by the Department of Adjara TV and Radio Broadcasting, in the government of the autonomous republic of Adjara. The channel has the fourth largest technical reach of all TV channels in Georgia, its terrestrial broadcast signal covers large parts of Georgia and it can be received by about 55% of all Georgian households via antenna, satellite or cable. Adjara TV has been funded with GEL 6.648 million from the regional government’s budget in 2012.
Adjara TV lacks a legal basis for its operation. The Georgian Law on Broadcasting only provides a legal basis for the Georgian Public Broadcaster, private broadcasters and community stations, but not for a state-controlled broadcaster like Adjara TV. The law emphasizes that a ‘legal entity interdependent with, or controlled by, an administrative authority’ must not hold a broadcasting license. Amendments to the Law on Broadcasting from December 2005 required the government to ‘elaborate proposals for the re-organization’ of Adjara TV by the end of 2006. But this date passed without any such proposal being put forward. When the Law on Broadcasting was amended most recently in April 2011, again a deadline for the re-organization was included in the law. The law obliged the government to propose plans for a re-organization by November 1, 2011. However, this deadline also passed without any government initiative to change the status quo.
Because Adjara TV is subsidized with taxpayer funds from the regional government, the station can offer very low advertising rates. These low rates undermine the competitiveness of other media outlets in Adjara, who cannot compete with the prices offered by Adjara TV.
In a democratic society, there is no need for a government body to control its own, taxpayer-funded TV station. A public broadcaster that has a mission to inform and educate the population rather than serve the government, alongside private TV channels, is sufficient.
- Parliament should, in consultation with the Adjara Supreme Council and the government of Adjara, transform or abolish the state broadcaster. One solution could be to merge Adjara TV with the Georgian Public Broadcaster, while allocating its frequencies to either the GPB (its Channel 2 can only be received by some 30% of households) or to private TV channels through a competitive process. Until the switchover to digital broadcasting (June 2015), frequencies that would allow more TV stations to be received by households via antenna remain a scarce resource.
Improve Transparency of Government Funding for the Media
Total advertising spending in Georgia, which is the primary source of income for most media outlets, is roughly USD 50 million per year. In relation to private sector advertising, government actors have significant funds for marketing and advertising at their disposal. The government needs to act in a fair and transparent manner when allocating funding to the media, including advertising and service contracts, in order to ensure that government actions do not distort competition in the media sector and that taxpayer funding is not used to reward or incentivize positive media coverage.
A number of local and regional governments allocate significant funds from their budgets to media activities, including financial support for local TV stations, the operation of government-controlled local newspapers or award funds to privately owned local publications.
In 2012, regional and local government bodies have earmarked a total of GEL 8.56 million for media activities and subsidies (2011: GEL 7.47 million), a large share of which is administered by the government of the AR Adjara. Georgian municipalities have allocated a total of GEL 1.43 million for media and PR efforts in their budgets (2011: GEL 1.17 million.). Although this number is fairly modest, the media spending by local municipalities in several cases has distorted competition and has undermined the financial sustainability of independent media outlets that face government-sponsored competitors.
- Ministries, government agencies and state-owned companies that carry out advertising campaigns should regularly and proactively disclose all of their spending and the beneficiary media outlets online and in a machine-readable format.
- Local and regional government bodies should evaluate whether their media spending provides added value, set sufficiently long deadlines for tender contracts in order to increase competition, and ensure that funds allocated to media outlets do not distort competition in the local media sector. Furthermore, government bodies should comply with the law on broadcasting which bans government bodies from allocating grants to broadcasters.
Media, information and other new technologies are playing an increasingly important part in the life of the average Georgian citizen, and have become an important sector of the Georgian economy. The freedom and development of these sectors is essential for Georgia’s democratic and economic development.
- Political parties should designate MPs who specialise in policies related to the media sector, and who are able to develop a strong expertise in this sector and follow media issues closely.
- All policies related to the media sector are highly sensitive, and systematic problems undermining a free media environment should be addressed by members of Parliament. At the same time, too much regulation can undermine the independence and freedom of the media. Thus, any regulations and laws concerning the media should only be passed after public consultation, allowing all affected parties to raise their concerns and participate in the process.
Promoting Freedom of the Internet
A quarter of Georgia’s adult population is online every day. The Internet has become the second most important source of news and information after television, according to a survey by CRRC from late 2011. Internet usage appears to be highest among 18 to 35-year olds. 43% of this group uses the Internet every day. The generation 55+ remains largely disconnected from the Internet: Less than 10% of this demographic use the Internet at least once per week. Similarly, no more than 10% of people living outside cities are regular Internet users. More than 5 out of 10 Georgians – 55% of the population – have never used the Internet.
- In order to further increase the number people in Georgia who are online, the government should develop a strategy to facilitate and promote citizens’ access to the Internet, especially in rural communities.
- Parliament should ensure that investigative government bodies comply with the current legal framework when accessing citizens’ telecommunications data, and are subject to sufficient oversight. User data of Internet and mobile phone usage should only be accessible to authorities after approval by a judge, in order to protect citizens’ right to privacy and ensure that journalists are able to protect their sources.
- Parliament should discuss the introduction of regulations ensuring net neutrality, a concept that protects consumers’ right to access all websites and Internet platforms without discrimination, and without speed restrictions imposed by Internet service providers.
Access to Public Information and Government Officials
Journalists working for independent local media outlets often struggle to get access to local officials and to information about developments in their communities. In several municipalities, recently introduced administrative procedures have created further obstacles to journalists seeking to access official information.
A major achievement of the former government has been the creation of free online databases containing official government records, including information on the registry of companies and legal entities, state procurement contracts, and the land cadaster. Surveys conducted by TI Georgia and IDFI over the past years have found that the majority of government entities on all levels have made efforts to comply with freedom of information rules.
However, a number of important entities and institutions, including the ministries of education, interior and defense, government reserve funds and entities carrying out infrastructure development projects, such as the Tbilisi Development Fund, have been reluctant to answer requests by the press and the public. Often, these entities ignore requests for the release of information, respond only after the deadline of 10 days, provide only parts of the information requested, or respond only after repeated requests. Reporters have had difficulties obtaining statements, public records and access to the public meetings of regional and local government bodies.
For journalists, the use of freedom of information requests is not always practical, as they often need to receive a timely response within a few hours or a few days from a competent government representative. If government entities fail to provide information or comments within a reasonable timeframe, this failure to communicate can result in false or misleading reporting, fueling rumor and speculation.
Journalists have also been limited in their ability to cover court trials because in most cases reporters have not been permitted to conduct audio or video recording, to use a computer or to take notes by hand. In many cases courts have refused to satisfy freedom of information requests, claiming a lack of resources.
- The government should work to further improve the response rate to freedom of information requests, and take steps to ensure that all public entities have sufficient capacity to be able to respond to these requests. Consideration should be given to introducing administrative sanctions against entities who fail to comply with freedom of information rules.
- Government and parliament should ensure that entities and institutions that have released little or no information about their activities, ignored freedom of information requests, or have not participated in the electronic procurement process in the past become more open and accountable to the media and the general public.
- Municipalities should consider introducing bulletin boards that are located outside the government building, easily accessible and visible to the general public, where all recent relevant notices and decrees are published, and where public local government meetings are announced. Municipalities that operate their own websites should post scheduled public meetings and relevant documents online.
- The Ministry of Justice should, in close consultation with media representatives and civil society organizations, work to improve journalists’ ability to cover court trials, which is also an important step towards improving public trust in the judiciary.
- The new government should put high priority on ensuring that government institutions are accessible to the media and that institutions seek to provide timely responses to questions from journalists and civil society whenever feasible. All major government entities and municipalities should have designated spokespeople who are able and allowed to respond to questions by the media in a timely manner. The government should consider offering communications trainings to local officials, encouraging them to communicate directly and more often with local journalists.
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.