Media environment ahead of the 2014 municipal elections
Media holds a special place in assessment of pre-election environment as it is the most effective channel for the candidates to convey their messages to the population. Unbiased and independent media also allows the voters to get well acquainted with the candidates and their programs and make informed decisions at the ballot. Several noteworthy trends may be pointed out while assessing media environment prior to 2014 Municipal Elections.
- Television remains the main source of information for Georgian citizens. The results of the survey conducted by Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) for Transparency International Georgia at the end of 2013 also confirmed this tendency.
- Media outlets offered mostly unbiased coverage of election-related topics. Following the introduction of permanent must carry/must offer regulations, the population has unlimited access to diverse TV content.
- Unlike 2012 Parliamentary elections there were almost no reports of journalists’ intimidation or interference with their activities. However, there were few cases in the regions where journalists were prevented from attending or posing questions at the meetings of the candidates. There were some cases of a verbal dispute between a government representative and a journalist over a critical media report prepared by the latter.
- Georgian media still lacks analytical reporting. Much of the reporting focused on covering candidates’ campaign activities and statements, while journalists, with certain exceptions, failed to raise critical questions and provide in-depth analysis of candidates’ programs. NGOs again took a strong lead on investigating backgrounds and assets of the candidates and provided information on possible cases of conflict of interests. These findings were then actively covered by media.
- Majority of TV channels aired political talk shows at least once a week. Elections were one of the main topics discussed at these shows. Most of the leading political party representatives had a chance to attend these talk shows. However according to the EU-UNDP funded media monitoring results the government and Georgian Dream representatives rarely participated in the talk show Teorema which is aired on Tabula TV. In the period of May 3-23 they never appeared on the show. Monitoring report refers to the talk-show host according to whom government representatives refused to participate in the program.
- There is no evidence of significant political money flowing into media, unlike 2012 Parliamentary Elections when major TV stations were closely linked to political parties and were directly or indirectly financed by them. Much has improved in terms of media ownership transparency as well as political control over media.
- Internet is free in Georgia: there are no cases of blocking online content, applications or programs and there have been no reports of prosecuting individuals for their online publications. Nevertheless illegal surveillance remains the reason for concern. The law enforcement agencies maintain their unlimited access to telecommunication companies’ data with the help of the so called Black Boxes. These equipments were installed by (or upon request of) the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) in the infrastructure of communications service providers, giving the possibility to law enforcement agencies to directly access all communications data, including all phone calls, text messages and internet traffic. This real-time monitoring is done through direct connection and no further assistance from telecom companies is needed.
- Few weeks prior to Municipal Elections Rustavi 2 released a video, which, according to the TV station was recorded by the MIA and proved that the Ministry was eavesdropping on the company. Few days later Rustavi 2 aired a secret recording of the phone conversation between the government representatives, opposition members and businessmen. This case further demonstrated how vibrant the surveillance problem is in Georgia.
- Few weeks before the elections the Prime Minister publicly slammed several media outlets for their critical reports. Government even released a statement accusing journalist Vakho Sanaia of being biased in a TV report aired on Maestro. Importantly,this is not the first case when government publicly slams individual journalists and lectures them on standards of journalism. These cases can be assessed as Government’s attempts to interfere in the editorial policy of critical media outlets.
- The Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) has a new Board of Trustees that was formed under the new regulations. This board now has a daunting task to solve the GPB’s long-lasting crisis. This task, however, could be complicated by the fact that old board members whose mandates were illegally suspended according to the Constitutional Court are going toappeal the new amendments. Theprotracted process of the Board’s formation and the neverending GPB reform is hindering the GPB’s ability to fulfill its public value mission – and thus the GPB’s relevance and legitimacy.
- Over the past few months, the Revenue Service has been trying hard to receive confidential information - addresses of all households where special measurement equipment, peoplemeters are located - from TV MR Georgia, the licensed representative of Nielsen Television Audience Measurement which is the only entity in Georgia measuring television audiences. If any interested side, including the Government of Georgia, were to have access to the addresses of households, there is a risk that the rating results will be influenced or manipulated, including by households exercising self-censorship.
 Funding for this report and TI Georgia’s work on the media is provided by the IREX G-MEDIA program. 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.