Georgia: Does the media serve the public interest?

MSI Objective 6: Media serving public needs

Score: 1.91/4.00

Ahead of the parliamentary elections in 2016, several developments in broadcast media have raised concerns that the ruling Georgia Dream Coalition is trying to establish control over the media. Human Rights activist and head of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association Ana Natsvlishvili highlighted the ongoing ownership battle over Rustavi 2 (one of Georgia’s most watched private television channels), disputes in Maestro TV (third most watched channel), and the cancellation of several political talk shows as indicators that broadcasters’ rights are under duress.

This is not the first time ownership battles over media outlets have dominated the news. In 2007, Imedi TV, then one of the few channels critical of former President Saakashvili’s government, had suffered a similar fate. Imedi TV was owned by Badri Patarkatsishvili, a supporter turned opponent of Saakashvili. Following the coverage of the anti-government protests, the channel lost its license to broadcast, had its assets frozen, and Patarkatsishvili was accused of using the channel to incite a revolution. For several years to follow, the editorial policy of the channel was believed to be controlled by the Saakashvili government until its collapse in 2012.

Most popular television channels in Georgia over the last few years have witnessed sudden changes in management and editorial policy. In almost every instance, political or government interference has been blamed. Curiously, since 2012 there has been greater transparency on media ownership and a reduction of political patronage. Panelists claim that despite these changes, the media in Georgia continue to be polarized, and to some extent influenced by political parties they support.

Despite these developments, panelists mostly agreed that the quality of broadcast media had improved from previous years and government interference, while still present, has diminished somewhat. Panelists came up with a few recommendations to help the media better serve public needs:

Broadcasters need to invest in codes of conducts and setting standards of reporting;
Media literacy for citizens is essential, therefore training courses need to be designed, developed, and funded by both the public and private sector;
Qualified personnel must be developed to report on issues requiring specialized knowledge, such as business, law etc.;
Georgian journalists should seek educational opportunities outside the country to learn from different media environments;
More efforts need to be made to ensure media independence from political or government interests.

Editor’s Note: Objective 6 is a separate study from objectives 1 through 5 of the Media Sustainability Index. This objective is measured using a separate group of panelists (listed at the end of this page) and unique indicators (described here).

Objective 6: Serving Public Needs

Score: 1.91

In November 2015, the Tbilisi City Court called for the appointment of interim managers at Rustavi 2, Georgia’s most popular private television channels. Reports suggest that the judge also asked the temporary managers to make changes to the editorial policy, including covering “all issues representing public interest.” Rustavi 2 has been locked in an ownership struggle with the former owner, Kibar Khalvashi, claiming he was pressured to give up his shares by then-President Saakashvili. Khalvashi took the current owners to court, seeking the return of his shares. Panelists agreed that despite the ongoing court battle, Rustavi 2 — a channel known for being critical of the current government — remained the best source for broadcast news.

There was unanimous agreement among panelists that the media are not responsive to citizens’ information needs; instead they focus on content that receives the highest ratings. Giorgi Vekua, director of the International Relations Department of the Georgian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, claimed it was the lack of professional training for journalists and polarized reporting that has led to the current problems. “Journalists are not well qualified and it’s pretty hard to find the professional ones when needed. They also have a bias or are affiliated with political parties or certain ideologies.” In order to get the full story, Vekua said, “In the evening we can watch Rustavi 2 and get the one side of story, then watch Maestro get their side of the same story and then make our final and neutral conclusion.”

The panelists did not note many instances where the media promoted discussions, especially around local social issues. Ninutsa Gulashvili, a member of Junior Chamber International, a youth focused non-profit, said there is a lack of programming for young students and children. Part of the problem, she claims, is that the media is disinterested in youth activities and opinions, and as a result, there is no space for them. According to her, “Putting some educational or interactive student TV projects in broadcast media,” was needed, especially to motivate young people and keep them engaged.

Panelist Nata Kvachantiradze, chairperson of the Georgian Tourism Association, spoke of the impact the media has on tourism in the country. “Earlier, one could easily find broadcasts about places to visit in Georgia, unfortunately, now media only focus on tourism in other countries. There has been an increase in shows about Europe and Asia, while the heritage of Georgia is largely ignored.” For Shota Lagazidze, CEO of the Agri-Tourism Farms Association, coverage of agrarian issues has declined, which is unfortunate as “programs focused on rural life, tourism, and culture are essential, particularly because they have a significant impact on the economy.”

A large percentage of Georgian households have a television, and perhaps that explains why the brunt of the criticism by the panelists focused on television media. According to panelists, the lack of media interest and focus on these issues is a result of a lack of professionalism and the intense focus on ratings. By focusing on ratings, according to Vekua, “The focus is on stories that most people will watch, not those that people actually need.”

According to Davit Jaiani, a lecturer on human rights at the East European University, “Georgia is a place where a good journalist is the one who shouts louder than others. They need to get educated.”

Panelists said that a lack of professional training could explain why the media do not effectively contribute to democratic policymaking. In fact, panelists observed instances where the media coverage of the European Union-Georgia Association Agreement, which outlines the cooperation between the two entities, is poor.

Panelist Tamta Muradashvili, a lawyer, claims there have been efforts by politicians and some media to spread misinformation about this agreement For instance, in 2015 there were amendments to advertising regulations, limiting advertising time to 12 minutes per hour of broadcast from April 1, 2015. Several media outlets had been opposed to this move, in part because their revenue would be affected. They would have preferred to delay the legislation by a year and dilute some of the amendments. When the law was adopted these outlets broadcast comments by politicians claiming the changes to the law were the result of pressure from the EU, and Georgia was being forced to adhere to the agreement. If the media were intent on objective reporting, Muradashvili said, they would have found that “the EU has no such regulations,” saying, “They should read these agreements carefully and report on them.”

Panelists did not agree on the reasons behind the poor quality of reporting, whether it is a result of disinterest in the subject or deliberate manipulation of information; it is unclear. They did note that not all of the media exhibit bias against the agreement. Some broadcasters, like Rustavi 2, do try and explain the EU regulations and their impact on the society.

In discussing the impact of media on citizen choices, panelists largely agreed that the media in Georgia is rarely neutral and the information is often unverified. The primary goal of the media seems to be providing news that sells instead of news that informs citizens. Zaur Khalilov, executive director of the Civil Integration Fund, an NGO that focuses on minority rights, added, “The owners of media companies say that they need scandals in order to increase sales and journalists do not have any other recourse.”

According to Levan Giorgadze, chairperson of the Free Market Advocacy Organization, business journalists often “provided unverified information for beneficiaries.” This is particularly worrying given that people often depend on business channels to make financial decisions. According to panelists, the problem also affects the image of the media and its ability to effectively cover complex issues. Reporting on an insolvency case that came up in the Tbilisi City Court, journalists reported on the proceedings and reached conclusions before the judge had even announced the verdict, making most of what they said invalid. This, according to panelists, was “another way to get people’s attention.” Journalists also misreported the case, calling it bankruptcy, when it was an insolvency case.

Giorgadze concluded that it was important for the media to recognize that “It is not an instrument for public relations; instead, its job is to provide truthful information.” He added, “Journalists should at least be well informed about the sector and the person who they intend to interview.” Other panelists agreed, saying the media is obliged to give people the information they need, not the information the media are interested in relaying. It is in the media’s interest to draw attention to more significant issues than just politics and parliament.

Panelists criticized the inaccuracies in media content. Writer Tariel Namoradze gave an example: “There was a case when journalists interviewed an astrologer, doctor, and film director about a big worker’s strike in Georgia. They didn’t interview people actually connected to the strike!”

The incident the panelist mentioned was a strike organized by coal workers in Tkibuli and glass factory workers in Ksani. The striking workers demanded wage increases and improved health and safety measures. These workers, with support from metal workers and those employed in the chemical industry, carried out an effective campaign, forcing their employers to meet their demands. The point the panelist emphasized was that often, “talking heads” on television have nothing to do with the story, but instead are chosen only to draw viewers.

Given this context, panelists agreed that it is hard to trust the media. Namoradze also highlighted the partisan nature of media reports as a challenge that needs to be overcome. “Biased content is the ‘ugly truth’ of our media system,” he said. He claimed it was common knowledge that “All media sources represent the interests of different political parties, groups, or the government.” Panelists agreed that the media do not accurately reflect reality; instead, they publish their own version of stories. Khalilov remarked, “If someone commits a crime, instead of pointing out the illegality, the media is mostly likely to use the opportunity to broadcast an exclusive story about the crime.”

When discussing Indicator 5, whether the public can recognize partisan or advertorial media content as such, panelists believe most journalists are not properly qualified and often unprofessional in presenting this information. Namoradze claimed, however, “Society knows and they are already aware of which broadcaster gives what type of information.”

Panelists also pointed out that media consumers come in different types. For example, taxi drivers would be more likely to listen to the news or talk shows on radio. Those who work primarily in offices are more likely to consume online news and rely on social media for the news.

Tamar Tsopurashvili, a professor at Ilia State University, talked of the popularity of social media such as Facebook, which have become the most useful instruments for getting information. This popularity is helped in part by the mainstream media’s inability to report neutrally. She added, “Almost none of the TV programs are balanced. Even soap operas don’t have the level of information required. In Georgia, soap operas have a huge influence over society,” implying that the media have a responsibility to maintain a certain quality of content. Talking of their content, she said, “For the last several years Indian and Turkish soap operas have gained popularity in the media. Society watches them and gets used to their lifestyle. Often, the values don’t match with those in Georgia. Ethical standards must be maintained.” Commenting on the quality of programming, she said, “One must not have to take off their clothes to become famous.”

Panelists believe the problem lies not with the citizens but the media. Giorgadze pointed out that the media “broadcast information for some people’s interests, not most people’s needs.” He also believes that most journalists are not qualified for the positions they occupy.

Indicator 6, covering the role played by editorial and partisan content — and the avoidance of hate speech — received the lowest score from the panelists, most likely due to the dissatisfaction over professionalism in the media. Mari Korinteli, who runs a small business called Books in Batumi, said, “Rural broadcasters are more likely to speak about the problems facing society than those in capital.” According to her, “The Regional Public Broadcaster in Batumi is more likely to broadcast interactive TV programs than most others. The private broadcaster on the other hand, they have limited viewership and scrutiny and, as a result, journalists often use hate speech.”

According to the panelists, the main problem is that journalists have not received professional training. They believe it is the media’s responsibility to practice ethical journalism, abstain from using hate speech, and conduct themselves properly and respectfully. The media cannot continue to believe that the end justifies the means.

Gigla Mikautadze, director of the Taxpayers Union, added “Nobody is interested in investing in systematic changes in the media sector. They are focused on watchdog type activities.” According to the panelist, “Media has the opportunity to create and inform citizen’s attitudes towards issues that matter. This attitude is essential, even for the government, since they want voters to elect them to power. It is society that rules the government, not vice versa.” Given the high level of responsibility on the media, he believes everyone has a stake in better media quality in Georgia.

Some panelists noted that there has been some progress in the quality of media. But there is room for improvement, for both citizens and the media. For the media, there needs to be additional training courses, and that both the public and private sector have a stake in investing in this. For consumers of media, they believe, there need to be changes in the civic education system. Panelists suggested encouraging producers who make educations television programs to invest resources in making media more useful to society.

Panelist Korinteli, who works in Batumi (the center of the Adjara Autonomic Republic), observed, “A large percentage of minorities do not use Georgian broadcasters because they give people information from the capital only. The media is not interested what is going outside the capital until something special happens, something that will generate mass interest and get high ratings.” Khalilov, who works on minority issues, shared an anecdote, claiming, “1TV channel openly admits it works on the basis of ratings. Their own board members don’t watch the channel.”

In the autonomous republic of Abkhazia, panelists noted, mainstream media is almost non-existent. Jaiani, who is an internally displaced person from Abkhazia, said, “One living in Tbilisi can speak with us in the Abkhazian language, but in several years Abkhazians won’t be able to say something in Georgian — not even in Abkhazian — because of Russia’s influence there, and the media could play one of the most powerful roles in this field.”

He emphasized that there is an urgent need for television programs focused on Abkhazia and media outlets based out of the autonomous region. Russia’s influence in the region is growing, evidenced by the fact that “The National language is Abkhazian, but, unfortunately because of Russia’s huge influence and interference no media representatives broadcast anything in that language.” According to Jaiani, the absence of any media coverage in the local language poses a threat to the large internally displaced populations. “We do not have any kind of information on what is actually happening in Abkhazia today.”

In discussing the gender discourse in Georgia, Tsopurashvili, who is also a women’s rights activist, said that the media use and popularize a lot of existing stereotypes. “Despite having many examples both inside and outside Georgia about women who are in positions of power,” the media’s portrayal of women seems to be skewed. When reporting on women in government, the media often use unnecessary adjectives like “blonde woman” or “pretty woman.” This, according to Tsopurashvili, shows that the media and society see women as “as unequal objects,” which in turn may encourage discrimination and perpetuate misunderstandings about women and gender roles in society.

List of Panel Participants

Ana Natsvlishvili, chairwoman, Georgian Young Lawyers Association, Tbilisi

Giorgi Vekua, director, International Relations Department, Georgian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Tbilisi

Levan Giorgadze, chairperson, Free Market Advocacy Organization, Tbilisi

Tamta Muradashvili, lawyer, Tbilisi

Tamar Tsopurashvili, professor, Ilia State University, Tbilisi

Tariel Namoradze, writer, Tbilisi

Mari Korinteli, founder and CEO, Books in Batumi, Batumi

Ninutsa Gulashvili, member, Junior Chamber International, Tbilisi

Davit Jaiani, lecturer, East European University, Gali

Zaur Khalilov, executive director, Civil Integration Fund, Tbilisi

Shota Lagazidze, founder and CEO, Agri-Tourism Farms Association, Alvani

Nata Kvachantiradze, chairperson, Georgian Tourism Association, Tbilisi

Gigla Mikautadze, director, Taxpayers Union, Tbilisi

Moderator & Author

Giorgi Glunchadze, project manager, Georgian Lawyers for Independent Profession, Tbilisi

The panel discussion was convened on March 5, 2016.

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