Georgian Media Environment in 2016-2020
Transparency International Georgia, as usual, assesses the state of affairs with regard to the media in Georgia in the run up to elections. In this case, the period between the 2016 parliamentary elections and present (the 2020 parliamentary elections) has been assessed, clearly demonstrating that, compared to the previous reporting period, Georgian Dream’s approaches as concerns the media critical of the government have become harsher. Overall:
- The Georgian media environment is pluralistic but extremely polarised. The media, especially TV, are perceived by parties as instruments of political struggle; correspondingly, the media environment directly reflects the political confrontation that prevails in the country.
- The government is actively using its influence on the judicial and law enforcement systems against critical media, including with the aim of putting pressure on the owners and management of TV companies, or their family members.
- During the reporting period, there were dozens of instances of threats made against media representatives, attempts of unlawful interference in their work, cases of physical assault, especially during the events of “Gavrilov’s night”, which prompted no appropriate response as envisaged by the law on the part of the government.
- It has become an unfortunate trend that the ruling party representatives refuse to participate in the programmes of the media critical of the government and make insulting comments directed against their journalists.
- Against the background of the coronavirus pandemic, journalists have to work in stressful conditions, which creates an additional challenge to the journalists’ working environment.
- Financial sustainability remains a serious challenge for the Georgian media. The analysis of the advertising market and revenue distribution has revealed that there are not enough financial resources for the media outlets active on the market, which significantly hampers the sustainability and future development of the media. The crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic has damaged the already small advertising market even further.
- The Russian propaganda remains a serious challenge, posing a threat to pluralism and the country’s democratic development. Unfortunately, the government has not taken effective steps to restrain the Russian propaganda.
- There has been a significant increase in the scale of domestic disinformation in the social media, aimed at discrediting political opponents, the civic sector and journalists in the eyes of the public. According to the report published by Facebook, domestic disinformation is being disseminated mainly by persons connected to Georgian Dream, although opposition parties are also actively involved in this process.
- The Georgian media legislation is adequate in providing for independent work of journalists and the media. However, in recent years, the attempts to amend the legislation have become more frequent. Despite publicly declared goals, such as, for example, harmonisation with the European legislation or combating hate speech, the legislative initiatives and proposals are, in reality, aimed at restricting critical views.
- The role of the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) is worth mentioning here as there are legitimate questions with regard to its independence and its being subject to the government’s influence. Individual statements, projects and legislative proposals made by the Commission are mainly aimed at restricting the activities of the media critical of the government and discrediting them.
According to the most recent public opinion polls, the TV is the main source of information on current political events (over 80 percent), followed by the internet (over 40 percent). Even though the significance of the internet is increasing every year, television remains an unequivocal leader in the process of formation of public opinion for years. Correspondingly, if we look at the processes and the key challenges in the Georgian media environment, both the government and other political forces are trying to secure influence over precisely these two segments of the media.
Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB)
Against the background of polarisation of the Georgian media environment, the role and significance of the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) become even greater. Despite legal and financial guarantees, the GPB has not been able to become the country’s leading media outlet trusted by the public.
According to the law, the GPB Supervisory Board is elected by the Parliament based on the so-called quota principle. However, in practice, the majority of the Board members are always the persons favourably disposed towards the government. For years, the Supervisory Board has been actively criticised on account of its failure to properly fulfil its duties as envisaged by the law. Both former and incumbent members are known to have made homophobic and insulting statements. The newly elected member, Bondo Mdzinarashvili, for many years worked as a presenter at Obiektivi TV Company notable for its pro-Russian and anti-Western sentiments.
Since the establishment of the Public Broadcaster and throughout its existence under various governments, none of its directors has been able to complete their term in office determined by the law. None of the directors ever offered the public credible reasons for their resignation, which makes the legitimate questions concerning the government’s influence over the broadcaster even more serious. GPB Director Giorgi Baratashvili resigned early after the 2016 parliamentary elections despite the fact that he had been fired by the Board twice and had himself reinstated with the help of the court both times. After Baratashvili, the Board elected Vasil Maghlaperidze – a person close to Bidzina Ivanishvili – to the post of the director. He had held leading posts in the TV companies owned by the Ivanishvili family – first, of a deputy director of Ninth Channel, then of the general producer of the 2030 programme on GDS. Two months before the 2020 parliamentary elections, Maghlaperidze resigned, citing as the reason the wish to avoid possible suspicions and questions with regard to impartiality of the GPB in the run up to the elections. However, many questions existed much earlier – about Maghlaperidze’s election as the director because of his connections to former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. The new director of the GPB is Tinatin Berdzenishvili who worked at various leading positions at the GPB for years and was a notable member of Vasil Maghlaperidze’s team. When she was elected as the director, she promised to continue Maghlaperidze’s policy at the GPB.
While Vasil Maghlaperidze was the director, a whole number of steps was taken that have caused criticism on the part of the public. Specifically, a questionable draft law was initiated and approved by the Parliament despite the opposition offered by TV companies and the non-governmental sector as well as the presidential veto; the contract with Radio Freedom was not continued and, correspondingly, the programmes Red Zone and Interview were suspended; employees of GDS, a TV company owned by the son of former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, were hired without a competition; Goga Khaindrava, who is close to Bidzina Ivanishvili, won a tender worth GEL 484,000 for the production of a TV series and related technical support; airing the footage showing poet Zviad Ratiani, which was supplied to the GPB by the Ministry of Internal Affairs caused harsh criticism on the part of the public. Even though the GPB’s self-regulatory body did not deem this action a violation of ethical standards, it did order the channel to remove the video from all platforms. According to the assessment made by the Charter of Journalistic Ethics, the GPB did violate the norms of ethics by these actions and “ennobled the reputation” of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The GPB’s editorial policy is notable for being favourably disposed towards the government during election campaigns. This can be found in the 2016-2018 election monitoring conclusions made by the Charter of Journalistic Ethics. Also, the 2020 parliamentary elections monitoring report says that the GPB news programmes allocate the largest portion of their time to Georgian Dream and the government enjoys the highest indicator of positive coverage. The 2018 election monitoring report by the OSCE also talks about the GPB’s bias in favour of the government.
There are investigative journalism programmes made by the GPB but, despite the broadcaster’s resources, the stories are not produced regularly. The effectiveness of the GPB with regard to uncovering corruption is limited.
Adjara TV Public Broadcaster
The processes concerning Adjara TV unfolded in a dramatic manner, resulting in the change of the broadcaster’s director. In October 2016, the Advisory Board of the broadcaster elected Natia Kapanadze as its director. A number of reforms were launched at the broadcaster under her. According to the evaluations made by local and international organisations, Adjara TV was relatively balanced and impartial in the “polarised environment”. Despite tangible progress, the Advisory Board instituted a questionable process of impeachment and dismissed Natia Kapanadze before the end of her term in office having ignored harsh public criticism. The Advisory Board, staffed mostly by Georgian Dream, elected Giorgi Kokhreidze as the new director after several attempts and lawsuits, which created an expectation that he would promote the interests of the government and implement an editorial policy favourable towards the ruling force.
From the very first day of being elected, Giorgi Kokhreidze started persecuting, harassing, illegally dismissing and blackmailing independent and critical journalists. Some of the journalists, in protest, left the broadcaster altogether, while others appealed to court and the Public Defender to defend their rights. The events in Adjara TV are unfolding against the background of appeals and critical assessments made by the Public Defender, local and international organisations.
As a result of the monitoring conducted by the Charter of Journalistic Ethics, under the leadership of Giorgi Kokhreidze, Adjara TV has become characterised by negative trends, such as keeping an artificial balance, bias, and the news programmes mostly unencumbered by any critical content.
Private broadcasters play an important role in terms of informing the population. Political influence over private media exacerbates the already strong polarisation in the country and creates obstacles to the balanced and unbiased coverage by the media. Even though the number of broadcasters has recently increased significantly as a result of liberalisation of the legislation, this has not weakened the polarisation. Given the limited financial resources, it is difficult [to ensure] sustainable development of the media in the Georgian market without the founders’ financial support. The situation is especially difficult for the regional media.
The government is not tolerant towards critical and dissenting opinions. The ruling party is actively using its influence over the law enforcement and the judiciary against the media critical of the government, including the owners and managers of broadcasters and their family members.
Rustavi 2 and ownership dispute
The lawsuit concerning the ownership of Rustavi 2 TV Company began as early as in 2015, when Kibar Khalvashi, who had close connections to Georgian Dream, appealed to court. On 18 July 2019, based on the Judgement of the European Court, Kibar Khalvashi became the owner of Rustavi 2. Khalvashi dismissed the channel director, Nika Gvaramia, and replaced him with his own lawyer, Paata Salia. After the owner of the channel was replaced, the new general director, despite promises and calls by civic and international organisations to ensure editorial independence of the channel, dismissed some of the top journalists of the TV company. Many journalists protested against this decision and, as a result, over 60 journalists left the channel. Some of the journalists who left the company joined Mtavari Arkhi TV Company, newly established by the former general director of Rustavi 2; others started working at another new broadcaster – Formula TV. Precisely these channels, along with Pirveli TV, have been targeted by the government in the past year.
Pressure against media critical of the government
In recent period, the Prosecutor’s Office instituted many proceedings against the management or owners of independent and critical media, indicting, among others, Nika Gvaramia, one of the owners and the general director of Mtavari Arkhi, for abuse of power while being the director of Rustavi 2, inflicting damage on the company. According to the civil society sector, this case was politically motivated. The Public Defender stated that the charges “did not contain clear evidence sufficient for imposing a criminal liability”.
Giorgi Rurua, co-owner and founder of Mtavari Arkhi, was detained on suspicious charges. Later, more serious charges were brought against him, which was assessed as a politically motivated action. The examination of the case materials revealed that Giorgi Rurua’s rights guaranteed by the Constitution and international acts, were wrongfully restricted during his personal search and other procedural actions. Nevertheless, the court did not consider these circumstances and sentenced him to four years in prison.
The events unfolding around an independent TV company, Pirveli TV, are considered the government’s attempts to interfere in its editorial policy. As early as in 2018, a representative of the TV company talked about “alarming signals” coming from the government which concerned changing the broadcaster’s editorial policy. In the summer of 2019, the father of the TV company founder, Avtandil Tsereteli, was charged in connection to the case of legalisation of illegal income. Representatives of the civic sector share the concerns of TV company owner Vakhtang Tsereteli and its journalists that the ongoing investigation is aimed at restricting the expression of critical opinion. On October 21, 2020, a few days before the parliamentary elections, Avtandil Tsereteli stated that he was threatened by two unknown men if TV Pirveli does not change its critical editorial policy. The incident occured in Tbilisi, on the territory of Lake Lisi.
Pro-government media holding
In parallel with the media critical of the government, pro-government TV channels also operate in the country, including Imedi TV Company notable for its rating and substantial financial resources and which, in the opinion of the Charter of Journalistic Ethics, has a strongly pronounced pro-government editorial policy.
The holding of Imedi TV Company unites Imedi TV, Maestro and GDS. After the 2012 parliamentary elections which brought Georgian Dream to power, the TV company was returned to the family of Badri Patarkatsishvili. In January 2017, Imedi became the owner of 100 percent of shares of GDS which belonged to Bidzina Ivanishvili’s son, Bera Ivanishvili. Maestro also became part of the Imedi TV holding. Prior to Georgian Dream’s coming to power, Maestro was considered one of the main TV channels critical of the government and played an important role in the process of democratisation of the country.
In the run up to the second round of the 2018 presidential election, the leadership of Imedi disseminated a special statement and switched to emergency mode in order to prevent the National Movement from regaining power. The government’s aggressive tone is directly reflected in Imedi’s editorial policy in which one-sided coverage of issues related to the non-governmental sector or international organisations aimed to discredit them has become a trend.
In the early 2020, some journalists started openly talking about censorship on Maestro. Based on the request by former employees of Maestro, the Charter of Journalistic Ethics established that the incumbent director of Imedi, Nika Laliashvili, grossly interfered in the editorial policy of Maestro as part of the holding and forced its journalists to act against their conscience when carrying out their professional duties. On 8 October 2020, the Charter of Journalistic Ethics released a secret audio recording made by journalists in which Laliashvili openly says to the Maestro journalists that “the war will become worse” and every one of the TV company employees must become involved in this war. “Forget balanced, balanced means something that has no smell, no taste, it is sterile, balanced is bad,” Laliashvili said to the journalist.
The freedom of the work of the media is guaranteed by the Constitution of Georgia and relevant legislation. Despite progressive legislation, illegal interference, obstacles and even acts of violence are frequent occurrences in the journalists’ work. Unfortunately, the state, whose obligation it is to create a safe working environment for media representatives, often does not react in accordance with the law which, in turn, provides an additional encouragement for violence, restricts the rights of the media and strengthens self-censorship.
The Georgian and international societies were particularly appalled by the alleged abduction from Georgia of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli in 2017, after which the latter turned up at the preliminary detention facility in Baku and was prosecuted. The journalist accused the Georgian security service of his abduction. Despite many promises made by the Georgian government, the results of the investigation are still unknown to the public. In Georgia, regular rallies were held to support Mukhtarli and to demand effective investigation of the case. After three years of imprisonment, Afgan Mukhtarli was released in March 2020. On 9 October 2020 he was supposed to arrive in Georgia from Germany in order to testify for the Prosecutor’s Office at his own will but, according to him, the administration of Georgian Airways, after communicating with the Georgian consulate, did not let him board the plane thus preventing him from coming. The airlines said that the reason was that Mukhtarli, who was supposed to travel to Georgia from Germany, is a citizen of Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan is not included into the green zone countries. Mukhtarli is planning to sue the Georgian government and the Georgian airlines.
On 20 June 2019, during the so-called “Gavrilov’s night”, up to 40 media representatives were injured along with the demonstration participants, some of them seriously. Despite strong statements and demands made by local and international organisations, the government has not punished the perpetrators, the case has not been investigated, and the hurt persons have not been given the status of the injured. Due to this, three journalists filed a suit to the Strasbourg Court and their cases have already been set for hearing.
In July 2019, several days after the change of Rustavi 2 owner, the new director started dismissing the channel’s famous journalists, despite the fact that local and international organisations and the Public Defender called on him to maintain a “pluralistic media environment” and to protect the TV company employees’ labour rights. The head of the TV company’s news service, presenters of the socio-political talk shows and other well-known journalists were fired. Because of this, up to 60 journalists and employees left the TV company en masse. Some of the dismissed journalists whose rights are defended by Transparency International Georgia, went to court demanding that the decision to dismiss them is deemed invalid, asking for compensation and payment for the time lost from work. However, the court hearings have not been held to this day. The dismissal of the journalists has been assessed as an open attempt to change the channel’s critical editorial policy.
In the early 2020, journalists started to openly talk about censorship on Maestro. The channel’s former journalists lodged a complaint with the Charter of Journalistic Ethics against Nika Laliashvili, director of Imedi TV, claiming that Laliashvili demanded to change the editorial policy of their programmes and closed these programmes because of their refusal. The Charter accused Laliashvili of violating the principles of the Charter of Journalistic Ethics, which implies forcing a journalist to go against his or her conscience. Later, the Charter released the secret recording made by the journalists, which confirmed that Laliashvili attempted to interfere with editorial policy.
Maia Stepnadze, former producer of Imedi TV Company, linked her dismissal in May 2019 to her social media post critical of the government. The Public Defender considered her appeal and established that Imedi TV Company dismissed Maia Stepnadze on account of her dissenting opinion and, correspondingly, the fact of discrimination was proved.
In the run up to this year’s parliamentary elections, Mtavari Arkhi journalist Jeikhun Mukhamedali fell victim to threat and physical violence. First, he was threatened by a Georgian Dream member of Bolnisi City Council, then, several weeks later, Jeikhun and his filming crew were physically assaulted and had their equipment damaged in Marneuli. A cameraman of the Public Broadcaster was also physically assaulted on the same day. The non-governmental sector condemned the occurrence. The international organisation Reporters Without Borders considered the attack against the journalists alarming.
Summoning media representatives for questioning and asking them to identify the sources they mention in the stories they prepare – the practice of the law enforcement bodies that has become more frequent in the recent period – has reached an alarming scale. The ongoing investigation conducted by the State Security Service in connection with a TV story by Mtavari Arkhi TV Company which it deems an act of sabotage can also be considered self-censorship and gross interference with the work of the media, since launching an investigation into this matter and considering it in the context of a criminal offence creates a dangerous precedent and a risk of a “chilling effect”.
Verbal and physical assault against journalists and creation of obstacles to their professional activities by Georgian Neo-Nazi groups, including by the members of Georgian March which has been transformed into a party, is becoming a dangerous trend. The government’s failure to properly respond to such actions serves as an additional encouragement of violence against journalists in the country.
The government’s negative rhetoric directed against the journalists critical of the government – encouraged, in all likelihood, by many comments and statements by Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili – exacerbates the situation. In the recent period, this attitude on the part of the government representatives has taken the shape of a trend. In addition, government representatives have stopped appearing on the air of critical TV channels of late, which is particularly harmful for the election process – allowing the population to make an informed choice.
On 14 November 2019, Irakli Kobakhidze, one of the leaders of Georgian Dream, accused the anchor of a talk show on Pirveli TV, Nino Zhizhilashvili, of promoting the interests of an opposition party, the United National Movement, in response to her question which contained criticism. On the same day, he accused Teona Bakuridze, then presenter at Adjara TV Public Broadcaster, of having connections with the opposition. This was not the first time that a government representative expressed this kind of an attitude towards the journalists of Adjara TV. Bidzina Ivanishvili, too, accused the channel of being biased. The chairperson of the Government of Adjara also made an aggressive statement addressed at the presenter during a live broadcast.
In February 2020, during a live broadcast, Davit Matikashvili, representative of the ruling team, deputy chairperson of the Parliamentary Legal Issues Committee, using an aggressive tone, verbally assaulted Pirveli TV journalist and presenter Tamar Chikhladze. A few days later, Anri Okhanashvili, chairperson of the Legal Issues Committee, called the very same Tamar Chikhladze “immoral and unscrupulous”. Several days after this incident, he verbally assaulted Pirveli TV presenter Diana Trapaidze. “You are the chief troll and bot,” ruling party leader Gia Volski aggressively said to a Formula journalist. “I will be happy if you close down,” said Davit Matikashvili, representative of the ruling team, to a Mtavari Arkhi journalist, and so on.
Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze’s statements are notably aggressive towards the media critical of the government: on more than one occasion, he has repeated variations of a phrase: “You will get a fist of truth in your face”.
Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC)
According to the law, the GNCC is an independent regulatory body tasked with protecting media pluralism and ensuring that freedom of expression is exercised by the media. The GNCC is authorised to oversee and control the fulfilment of the requirements of the law in the broadcasting sphere and, in the event of the violation of these requirements, to impose corresponding sanctions on a broadcaster.
The Commission is often criticised for being favourably disposed towards the government or being influenced by it. Concerns were voiced with regard to the statements made by the GNCC during the 2018 presidential election period, linking them to the signs of using administrative resources in favour of Salome Zurabishvili, presidential candidate backed by Georgian Dream. The regulatory body criticised Rustavi 2 TV Company for increasing the limit of free political advertisement despite the fact that this was not against the law. The GNCC also negatively assessed the content of advertisement aired by the broadcaster and demanded to remove some of the videos from its programming, citing non-compliance with the law as the reason.
A letter sent by the Commission to the broadcasters in August 2018 was problematic from the viewpoint of independence of editorial policy in the media and protection of personal data: in it, the regulatory body warned the media about the need to verify the credibility of the opinion polls they had ordered. This issue became topical in 2016 when the GNCC, based on the request by journalist Shalva Ramishvili, started a probe into the lawfulness of the opinion poll results conducted by GFK Customs Research LLC on commission by Rustavi 2. In 2017, the Commission submitted a legislative initiative to the Parliament whereby it wanted to oblige media outlets at the level of the law to verify the results of conducted opinion polls before making them public. Against the background of public criticism, the Parliament did not consider the proposal.
The OSCE, too, gave a negative assessment to the work of the GNCC. In the 2018 election monitoring report states that the GNCC was not always transparent and impartial in its approaches when implementing oversight, and was notable for its hostile attitude towards representatives of the civil society sector.
Like the government, the GNCC has an expressly negative attitude towards media organisations whose editorial policy is critical of the government. One of the directions of the Media Academy established by the regulatory body is Media Critic where media productions are analysed and assessed. The monitoring conducted by the Myth Detector of the period between 5 November 2019 and 7 July 2020 revealed that “most of the materials” published by Media Critic “contain criticism of the media outlets that are not favourably disposed towards the government”. The international organisation Reporters Without Borders is concerned about Media Critic as its activities, in the opinion of the international organisation defending media, serves to discredit the media critical of the government.
Controversial draft laws
The legislative proposals prepared by the GNCC are a cause for concern, including the draft law On Broadcasting which is carried out within the framework of the EU Directive Implementation process and, along with other amendments, envisages regulation of hate speech at the legislative level. According to the existing draft, the issues of the use of hate speech, war propaganda and harmful influence on the underage persons are transferred from the area of self-regulation to that of regulation. The GNCC justifies its proposal by the obligations under the EU Directive, however, the EU Directive itself does not envisage this obligation and does not give preference to either system – regulation of self-regulation. Against the background when the impartiality of the GNCC is already being questioned, these amendments will provide the Commission with the additional lever to exert pressure on the media and restrict the freedom of expressing criticism.
Representatives of the government, including the president, the city mayor and the former Speaker, made many statements about the necessity to initiate legislative amendments which they justify by the need to combat fake news and hate speech. These statements have created a substantiated negative expectation that the statements on the part of the government are aimed at diminishing the high standard of the freedom of expression and restricting the expression of critical opinions by its opponents.
The amendments made to the Law on Broadcasting on account of the Code on [the Rights of] the Child were criticised by the broadcasters. According to the TV channels, the law “along with vague legislative amendments, further strengthened the legal levers of interfering with editorial independence and control over the media”.
Russian propaganda and domestic disinformation
Dissemination of disinformation remains one of the pressing problems in Georgia. The Russian Federation which occupies 20 percent of the country’s territory is actively engaged in a hybrid war. Precisely disinformation represents a critically important component of this war. Unfortunately, in parallel with it, domestic disinformation campaigns, particularly those carried out by the government-backed groups, serving parochial political interests and aimed at discrediting its opponents, are actively disseminated by the Georgian media.
The Russian disinformation is mostly disseminated in the Georgian language and by certain Georgian media companies and political parties. [There are also] pro-Russian organisations, such as, for example, the Primakov Georgian-Russian Public Centre and far-right nationalist movements. The Western states, which lead the struggle against the problem of the Russian propaganda, have elaborated a unified approach and are implementing corresponding measures in all relevant state agencies. Georgia’s actions in response to disinformation as part of the hybrid war are inadequate. The government is not really ready to face the hybrid threats.
The 2019 study by the Media Development Foundation (MDF) talks about an increase in the number of anti-Western messages, which have doubled in the past four years; especially frequent are the messages directed against the West and NATO as well as the statements in Russia’s favour.
The so-called StratComms created by the state agencies under the aegis of combating disinformation, like the Media Critic of the GNCC, are mostly busy criticising the media outlets that are not favouring the government.
Furthermore, the number of fake pages in social media has been increasing in the recent period, disseminating libellous, fake information and using hate speech. The social network Facebook published two reports, according to which it has deleted hundreds of fake pages and accounts which conducted activities in support of Georgian Dream and disseminated disinformation directed against not only political opponents but also the civic sector and media representatives. In 2020, Facebook also deleted pages linked to the National Movement opposition party.
The Myth Detector uncovered a network of pages linked to the Alliance of Patriots party, actively disseminating pro-party and anti-Western disinformation.