Georgia’s Media in 2016
Overall Country Score: 2.42 (down from 2.51 in 2015)
A year ahead of the parliamentary elections, an ownership struggle over Rustavi 2 TV created a drama with high stakes for media freedom in Georgia. Kibar Khalvashi claimed that he was forced by ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili to relinquish his shares in 2006. He successfully sued Rustavi 2’s current owners to demand that the television station be returned. The case was accompanied by a series of injunctions by the city court judge, who made negative remarks about Rustavi 2’s content in his opinion, which appointed interim management for the channel. Prior to these verdicts, fearing that Khalvashi might push for a speedy execution of the court decision, a Rustavi 2 lawyer appealed to the Constitutional Court seeking a stay on the immediate enforcement of the city court verdict.
Rustavi 2 is linked with the United National Movement (UNM) right-wing party and is seen as an outspoken critic of the current establishment. Nika Gvaramia, director of the channel, accused the government of attempting to silence a critical voice. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili then declared, “This is a private ownership dispute between the two parties,” signaling that the government had no intention of interfering.
Startled by these developments, Georgian media, civil society, and international organizations called on the government and the court to ensure media freedom guarantees in the process. The courts partially modified the verdict concerning interim management, reinstating Gvaramia as the station director.
Mid-year, the country pulled off a successful transition to digital broadcasting after a relatively short period of time — less than two years. Despite risks of political manipulation during the switch, the government managed to run the entire process smoothly, avoiding such interference, panelists said. On the other hand, shortcomings in the switchover’s technical execution left some rural areas without access.
The beginning of the year brought amendments to the Law on Advertising, in keeping with EU directives, which limit television advertising time and sponsorship services. While none of the panelists or other industry experts argued against the amendments, many have criticized the rush around its enactment. They expressed concern that it negatively impacted the advertising market in a year when the currency was severely weakened, causing the market to shrink by around 17 percent compared with the previous year.
The media faced other challenges in 2015, including the stalled election of two members of the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) board of trustees; rising concern over the infiltration of pro-Russian narratives in Georgian media; and the closure of the Journalists Legal Defense Center at Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA), which left journalists without legal support. On a positive note, the panelists said that it has become highly unpopular for media outlets to dodge ethical standards, especially when reporting about children. Reflecting all of these developments, the overall MSI score slid just slightly.
Objective 1: Freedom of Speech
The panelists’ evaluation deteriorated for indicator 1, on legal and social norms protecting and promoting free speech. The drop was largely the result of the Rustavi 2 ownership struggle. Still, the owners resolved the case without creating a dangerous precedent, through the help of the separation of powers between executive, legislative, and judiciary branches; civil society organization advocacy; and pressure from international organizations and diplomatic missions.
In regard to the legal environment, media experts continue to say that the main problem is not the laws, but their implementation. Freedom of speech is protected and is subject to regulations, which makes Georgia’s legislation among the region’s best, the panelists said. Interestingly enough, the score for this objective increased slightly over last year’s score.
In the Rustavi 2 case, the city court judge’s justification of his decision to hand over the interim management of the channel from its current directorship to a temporary director outraged the panelists the most. They ruffled particularly over his statement that leaving the current managers of Rustavi 2 in place would “possibly affect the format of [Rustavi2] activities, might lead to cancellation and/or modification of several programs, including the most watched ones; and, therefore, there also exists a threat for the attention of the Broadcasting Company Rustavi 2 and its staff to be directed solely towards the coverage of the ongoing [court] dispute.” He continued: “This would not only undermine the ratings of the company and its financial status, but would also create a serious threat for the media to lose its main role and function — protection of public interest.”
The management decision came on November 5, two days after the judge ruled that company shares should be handed back to the plaintiff. The Rustavi 2 lawyer protested the verdicts, and media organizations, rights groups, and civil society and international organizations expressed their concerns as well. As Civil Georgia reported, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović asserted: “Editorial decisions should be made in newsrooms, not courtrooms.” US Ambassador to Georgia Ian Kelly warned, “Attempts to change the management of the station, in advance of the appeal process, have profound political implications. In a democratic society, critical opinions should be encouraged, not silenced.”
Panelists said the verdict offers a perfect example of the government’s attempts to exert a firm grip on independent media — in the instance of Rustavi 2, the most watched television station in the country. The most recent data from TVMR, Nielsen Television Audience Measurement’s official licensee, show that at the end of December, 29.43 percent of television viewers watched Rustavi 2.
Nata Dzvelishvili, executive director of the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics (GCJE), shared her view: “I believe that the court verdict, with remarks about the content of Rustavi 2, was noteworthy and posed a risk to the freedom of speech and expression.” Nino Danelia, an independent media expert and a communications professor at Ilia State University, expressed the belief that Urtmelidze’s references toward the media constitute direct involvement in the station’s editorial policy.
Rustavi 2 and its supporters have long questioned the credibility of the city court judge, positing that criminal charges brought against Urtmelidze’s mother while he was presiding over the Rustavi 2 case rendered him vulnerable to government influence. Although there is no direct proof stating that Khalvashi is linked to the government, critics note that his sister Pati Khalvashi is a lawmaker of the ruling Georgian Dream Coalition party. Some panelists also criticized the High Council of Justice of Georgia’s backing of Urtmelidze’s remarks about the media. Independent media expert Zviad Koridze said that it is dangerous that the state organization has commented on media’s performance and it “tells you that it is legitimate to limit the freedom of speech.”
Amid the legal standoff over Rustavi 2, the Ukrainian website uarevo.in.ua published secretly recorded conversations between Saakashvili and Gvaramia discussing how to defend Rustavi2. “Get boeviks (a Russian term for fighters), who will defend apparently referring to defense of Rustavi 2 TV HQ), because eventually it will definitely end up with shooting, Saakashvili told Gvaramia,” civil.ge reported. Gvaramia confirmed the conversation and contended that the leaked recordings prove his previous allegations about the government blackmailing him, threatening to expose his personal life and recordings unless he steps down as the director of Rustavi 2.
Prime Minister Garibashvili and ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili — the latter accused by Rustavi 2 supporters supervising the case from behind the scenes — fended off the allegations. President Giorgi Margvelashvili admitted the case was a “problem,” and said, “Everyone must remember that free media is of a supreme value in contemporary Georgia.”
Nino Jangirashvili, director of the small television company TV Kavkasia, said the successful handling of the case relates to the fact that the two major political forces (the Georgian Dream Coalition and United National Movement) balance each other by being dispersed at various levels of the government.
“What worked is that the government is multifaceted,” Danelia said. “What worked is that the court is not ruled by one person only. Different branches of the government have acquired the monitoring functions for one another because they are influenced by different political forces. For example, the Constitutional Court is under United National Movement. During the previous government, the executive, legislative, and judiciary powers were under the control of one person, one party. We don’t have this now.”
The switchover to digital terrestrial broadcasting — another major event of the year according to the panelists — started in July 2015, and was a success from legal, political, and technological perspectives. The Georgian National Communication Commission (GNCC), the media regulator in charge of the process, was apolitical in its work, the panelists added.
Georgia has two private national and 17 regional multiplexes (digital signal bundles), with an additional one that only GPB uses. The Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI), an NGO that took an active role in strategic planning and monitoring of the switchover, stated in an interim progress report that the multiplex system can carry a minimum of 20 and a maximum of 60 channels free-of-charge per settlement. Those numbers are in contrast to the 10 free-of-charge channels per settlement under the analog system. Georgian TeleradioCenter, which is obligated by the law to carry GPB programs, serves its multiplex exclusively.
Following the switchover, authorities abolished general and special licensing for television broadcasters. Content producers now are allowed to enter the television broadcasting market through a simplified authorization procedure. Panelists noted a risk: that the switchover could potentially result in monopolization of the media market, creating barriers for media. But that did not happen. “Anyone can get an authorization. There are plenty of places in multiplexes,” said Jangirashvili, whose television company operates a multiplex along with three other partners.. “This government has been treating the process quite fairly; it (the government) took into consideration the advice and concern of almost every interested party. This market is free. We were even reimbursed the licensing fees.”
Jangirashvili observed that the digital switchover legislation is vague regarding the access that multiplex operators can use to grant access to broadcasters. “The law stipulates that there are three priority criteria regarding who shall be granted access to a multiplex. The first is using HD broadcast format, the second one is the order (e.g. who applied first), and the third one is that the priority should be given to those broadcasters satisfying the terms of general broadcasting. So, I have a question here — if I have only two spots available in my multiplex, which of these three criteria should I use for granting access to broadcasters?” Natia Kuprashvili, director of the Georgian Association of Regional Broadcasters (GARB), explained that GNCC is preparing a set of amendments to be included in the Law on Electronic Communication and the Law on Broadcasting.
Radio remains on an analog platform; therefore, broadcasters require a license to use radio frequencies. Online broadcasters also require authorization. Mamuka Andguladze, media program officer at the Council of Europe, said that besides the benefits that small online broadcasters can obtain through authorization, the procedure also imposes on them all those responsibilities of authorized regular television broadcasters. “The problem is in the approach; these two platforms (small television broadcaster and online media outlet) differ dramatically,” Andguladze emphasized.
In the beginning of the year, the Public Defender’s Office lodged a lawsuit in the Constitutional Court against the highly controversial legislative amendments on secret surveillance to the Law on Electronic Communication. The lawsuit claimed the amendments do not protect privacy rights as enshrined in the country’s constitution. Media experts pointed out that the existing legislation does not guarantee journalist privacy, and hands law enforcement easy access to telephone and Internet operators.
In June 2015, amendments were brought to the Article 2391 of the Criminal Code of Georgia, adding “calls for violent actions” among the list of criminal offenses. The initial draft bill contained confusing wording, according to some of the panelists. Andguladze said that the initial version of the bill carried the danger that failure to properly use the definition would “easily squelch the freedom of expression of the media and beyond; but it was fixed afterwards.” The wording was revised from “calls inciting strife” to “calls for violent actions aimed at causing discord between racial, religious, national, ethnic, social, linguistic or other groups.” The article also specifies that criminal punishment be applied only if such calls pose direct and obvious threats. Still, Andguladze said, “the existing legislation is sufficient to ensure that hate speech is not practiced.”
A few panelists said that Georgian society is becoming less likely to pressure the media into repressing certain themes. Jangirashvili said that 2015 saw significant improvements in this regard. “Even themes related with religion are covered more openly… There is definitely an improvement,” she noted.
Panelists agreed that media members are physically attacked, but the public is not always aware. Dzvelishvili said that verbal attacks happen often in social media, and the evidence is easily deleted. Gela Mtivlishvili, director of Kakheti Information Center, recalled how the media relations advisor to the Minister of Defense, Imeda Darsalia, publicly threatened to punch him in the jaw on Facebook.
Transparency International reported 15 cases of mistreatment of the media in the past two years, in the form of physical and verbal abuse by public officials. According to the report, the most frequent victims are the journalists in the regions of Adjara and Kakheti, while several instances of such pressure were also documented in Guria, Imereti, Samegrelo, Kartli and Samtskhe-Javakheti.
Nino Narimanishvili, editor-in-chief of Samkhretis Karibche, published in the minority-populated Akhaltsikhe region, shared an incident that took place there. When she was covering a fire at the house of a relative of the head of the local mayor’s Department of Infrastructure, the owner verbally abused her and threatened to smash her cameras. She said she made a public statement, but the police did not react.
Ekaterine Tsimakuridze, coordinator at GYLA, said that sometimes investigations start but they never seem to end, pending eternally at the prosecutor’s office. Upon receiving a request, the prosecutor’s office refused to disclose statistics on pending cases under investigation.
In August 2015, Imedi TV announced a temporary suspension of political and social shows, shutting down two programs: “Reaktsia” (Reaction) and “Imedis Kvira” (Imedi Week). Some months before the closure, anchor Inga Grigolia claimed that the ruling party had pressured her and attempted to influence the talk-show agenda. In September, the Georgian Public Broadcaster discontinued Eka Mishveladze’s talk show, “Pirveli Studia.” Channel managers declared that the decision was related to the conflicts of interest caused by Mishveladze’s marriage with Alexi Petriashvili, deputy chief of the Free Democrats party. 
Various watchdog organizations, alarmed by the threatened suspensions, appealed for media diversity and political processes in the country ahead of the 2016 elections. GPB invited Mishveladze to host a renewed talk show in the beginning of 2016, and Imedi TV launched a new political talk show, “Shalva Ramihvili’s Show.” Maia Mikashavidze, an independent media expert and communications professor at Ilia State University, asserted, “This is not just happenstance, as it occurs right before the elections. When the talk shows are suspended, they always say that the decision is part of the editorial policy and they will launch a new and better one.”
Last year saw a stalemate over the GPB Board of Trustees that has dragged on without resolution for almost two years now, with two empty chairs on the board. Largely acclaimed by media professionals and civil society, the 2013 amendments to the Law on Broadcasting introduced the two-seat quota for minority representatives (from UNM), for a total of nine members. Most panelists agreed that the political control of the broadcaster is explicit. Some panelists also viewed the appointment of the channel’s head of information service as a political decision. Jangirashivili questioned the professional skills and knowledge of Giorgi Gvimradze, the political scientist who landed the position in October. “If he doesn’t know how to prepare the content, how can he assess journalistic work? How can he instruct journalists?”
Access to public information worsened in the past year, according to most of the panelists. Mtivlishvili said he prepared 40 administrative complaints in 2015 against public organizations. “It is commonplace… this complicates everything, as it is much harder for a journalist to prepare a complaint than it is for an average person. On one occasion, I won a case against the Kakheti governor, and it took 12 months,” he said, but added that the agency investigating and in need of relevant information was liquidated a month later.
According to the IDFI report, between January and November 2015 the responsiveness of public organizations dropped to 86 percent (from 90 percent in 2012–13). The report named the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Economic Sustainability and Development, and Administration of the Government of Georgia among the least open organizations.
Panelists complained that public agencies’ most frequently cited reason for withholding public information is privacy rights and personal data protection. Nestan Tsetskhladze, a marketing manager for Netgazeti.ge, said that she requested information about herself to test the legislation. In the beginning, the Ministry of Interior showed willingness to help, but eventually stopped responding. Despite this, Tsetskhladze said, the tools for requesting information make the entire process more convenient now. The Data Exchange Agency launched an open data portal, data.gov.ge, in 2015 as part the country’s Open Government Partnership (OGP) initiative. The portal allows government institutions to post data that can be freely accessed, used, and reused, in open formats. But few public organizations are listed on its menu.
Currently, the norms and restrictions on public information are scattered across various laws and legal provisions. Dzvelishvili mentioned that in the frame of OGP, lawmakers are preparing a Freedom of Information Act, which will replace all the existing norms. “The legislative amendments will enforce stricter sanctions against organizations that decline to provide public information, and will also introduce an Ombudsman’s Institute,” she said.
“Our public servants have very small understanding of the importance of freedom of information, and of the fact that freedom of information is not for journalists only. Rather, it should be the right of every citizen,” Koridze said.
Libel has been a civil offense since 2004. Panelists recalled only one case in 2015 in which a media outlet was taken to court. Mamuka Khazaradze, the president of one of the richest private banks in Georgia, TBC-Bank, won a case against the Georgian tabloid Asaval Dasavali on defamation charges. The case relates to a 2014 series of articles blaming Khazaradze for physically assaulting the leader of the national movement of 1980s, dissident Merab Kostava. The articles also accused Khazardze of misappropriation of the assets of Elit-Electronics and Borjomi company, and an attempt to drive the Goodwill Company to bankruptcy. In lodging the lawsuit against the newspaper, Khazaradze requested GEL 160,000 ($70,000) in compensation. According to the ruling, Asaval Dasavali will have to apologize for spreading defamatory allegations against Khazaradze.
At the end of November, a Georgian pro-Islamic State (IS) group released video footage of four Georgian-speaking men calling on Muslims in the country to join the “caliphate” (Islamic state) and threatening to execute “infidels,” civil.ge reported. As a result, state security services blocked access to two websites, among them WordPress, while both remained available outside the country. Even though the service was recovered in a few hours, the panelists unanimously condemned the state’s decision. The panelists were concerned that the security services over-reached in this situation. Tsetskhladze said, “We have no information on how they (security services) accomplished this from technical perspective — whether they had a relevant document from the court, or if they addressed a provider. Can they simply make a call and cut off access? In this case, this seems to be a real threat.”
Kuprashvili added that in the wake of this incident, media members are noting the vagueness of the normative documents regulating the Internet, allowing multiple interpretations. “Our legislative acts (the Law on Electronic Communication) obligate a network provider to monitor the .ge domain (Caucasus Online) and revoke forbidden content. Such content can encompass anything, and it is unclear what the term means. The mistake in the case of WordPress, or whatever it might be called, has made us think about the problems with legislation.”
All panelists agreed that access to foreign sources of information is free for the media. However, Dzvelishvili stressed that online media outlets are negligent regarding intellectual property rights and copyright laws when using various foreign sources.
The government does not restrict access to the profession at the university level, and entrance to the field is largely free. Bloggers and freelance journalists require authorization to attend press briefings and gain access to public organizations. Some panelists noted cases in which bloggers, freelance journalists, and photographers were denied accreditation just because they did not belong to a specific media outlet.
Objective 2: Professional Journalism
Media outlets that meet professional norms and standards are few in the country, and the political fealties of some media spurred the panelists to question Georgian journalists’ professionalism and neutrality. These shortcomings explain the slight dip in the Objective 2 score this year.
“You may have a penchant for certain political beliefs…but your objective should be informing those for whom you write an article or prepare a news report so that they learn more, not because you have to pay lip service to the owners,” Koridze said.
A momentous statement by Rustavi 2 director Nika Gvaramia, regarding the ideological preferences of the channel at a public debate on Reflections: Media and Ideological Values, sparked an argument on the standards of neutrality and balance in the Georgian media. During a discussion on September 22 at Frontline Georgia, a media club that serves as a neutral venue, Gvaramia announced that his channel follows a right-wing centrist ideology. “When UNM departed from the chosen path of serving the ideology, Rustavi 2 made a mistake by following the party,” Gvaramia added. Some panelists said that after Gvaramia’s announcement, Georgian journalists will have to revalue professional standards of neutrality and impartiality in producing media content.
“Rustavi 2 said directly that it represents the side; [it said] ‘I’m the television with the worldview.’ This is fairly new in our reality. If before this was disguised, now it has become trendy to talk about it… And there is Obiektivi TV, which said ‘I do what I want to do.’ As if it has become common practice that [professional] standards are not important and are not required any more,” Jangrashvili said.
Still, media members have been discussing ethical standards more, some panelists said. The government’s broadcast code of conduct sets regulations to broadcasters, consequently making Georgian broadcast media more inclined to maintain the quality. To strengthen the practices of ethical reporting on children’s issues, some national and regional broadcasters imposed additional self-regulatory mechanisms by signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) prepared by the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics and UNICEF. Jangirashvili said that she is skeptical about the MoU, claiming that Kavkasia TV can fulfill the duties outlined in the broadcast law without additional tools. “If I make a mistake, I will try to repair it myself,” she said. “I don’t need anyone’s complaint, and I don’t agree to obligating myself to certain regulations that otherwise are not envisioned by the law [on broadcasting].”
Still, hate speech, sensationalism, and plagiarism are prevalent in mainstream Georgian media. Media Development Foundation (MDF) examined these practices in its study, “Financing of media outlets spreading anti-Western sentiments and hate speech from the state budget, 2015.” The study identified the television company Obieqtivi as affiliated with the political Union of Georgian Traditionalists, and newspapers Sakartvelos Respublika, Alia, and Asaval Dasavali among those outlets that promote hate speech and anti-Western rhetoric.
In October 2015, the online media picked up and circulated footage of sexual abuse posted on the Ukrainian website Tube.ua. The videos were originally discovered in the Georgian city of Zugdidi in 2013. Some parts of the video materials were destroyed upon their finding; others were kept for investigation purposes. Dzvelishvili said that the footage went viral instantaneously, with online media considering certain ethical aspects or professional standards.
In terms of quality, Georgia has a handful of print and online publications providing in-depth and highly professional reporting. They include magazine Liberali, netgazeti.ge, the newspaper Batumelebi, and 24Saati.ge. Other quality online news services available in the Georgian language are civil.ge, with its new analytical portal, The Clarion; and the Georgian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Self-censorship is practiced, but hard to detect, panelists said. Kuprashvili contended that the ideological media might easily verge on censorship and compel the journalists to self-censor. “If the discourse says that ideological media is acceptable, the same discourse might say that certain events that are unacceptable to the ideology shall be censored.” Jangirashvili recalled a recent case involving the father-in-law of the prime minister, aired on Kavkasia TV. She said that even though there were journalists from other media outlets covering the case, the story did not get reported elsewhere in the media.
Many of the panelists agreed that Georgian media report on key events. Some panelists said that if certain media outlets omit certain news for whatever reason, other outlets always step in.
Pay for journalists differs across media sectors and between the capital and the regions. “The marketplace is unbalanced, as some are paid tens of thousands and some not even a thousand,” said Koridze. An exploitative approach to internships has become more prevalent. Dzvelishvili said that internships are mostly unpaid, and the rights of the interns are poorly protected. The interns accept unfair terms because they are interested in getting their foot in the door. Dzvelishvili said that they are told they will eventually get contracts, sometimes even years later.
Media outlets will commonly evade the employment law and keep journalists working without formal agreements. Tsetskladze said that some media managers engage in corrupt deals with advertisers to pay high salaries for their journalists. Andguladze noted that the revenues of the media outlets do not necessarily guarantee high salaries for journalists. He gave an example of Palitra holding, a media company with big budget where journalists draw slightly above average salaries.
Georgians have many choices for both entertainment and news, panelists said. They agreed that news and entertainment programs on most channels are balanced, ensuring that entertainment programs do not override the news — even during prime time. The same balance is kept between entertainment and general license-holding channels in the country.
Following the digital switchover, broadcasting companies have been slow to make technical upgrades to their equipment, Kuprashvili said. Even Rustavi 2, the country’s most innovative television channel, failed to change its equipment to HD. Kuprashvili said that regional broadcasters are especially suffering in the process, with some forced to borrow bank loans to cover the costs of the upgrade.
Niche journalism is scarce in Georgian media. Panelists expressed different views on what makes media outlets prioritize or downgrade niche journalism. Jangirashvili claimed that it is the sectorial difference between television and newspapers affecting the decision of television stations. Zurab Gumbaridze, executive director of Rustavi 2 Sales House, disagreed, saying that the issue is connected more with the availability of resources. He noted that small publications with tight budgets might not be able to keep up with niche reporting requirements.
Nino Zuriashvili, an investigative reporter at Studio Monitor and chair of GCJE, said that investigative reporting is underdeveloped and media companies are reluctant to invest in the field. Although the law requires GPB to air investigative stories, its only such effort is the program “Investigative Reporter.” The program has been on the air since October 2014, but the panelists questioned its quality.
At the meeting of GPB’s self-regulatory body in November, MDF complained about the investigative film “Rustavi2’s Known and Unknown Buyers and Sellers.” MDF’s charges focused on statements about its loan to Rustavi 2 and the airing of its webpage.
“Investigative reporting is a very big product,” Zuriashvili said. “It requires a lot of time; you delve into the themes and events, and your product comes slow. It needs a lot of effort. I understand that not everyone can spend so many resources. GPB should have them, but it does not…and nobody asks it. Instead, you can find some small online resources offering in-depth reporting and journalistic investigations.”
Studio Monitor (monitori.ge), a small investigative media outlet, is the only Georgian company that has been producing high-quality investigative content. The recipient of a number of awards and prizes, its programs were aired by Maestro TV once a month for the past several years. At end of 2015, Maestro TV decided to start own investigative programing and terminate the contract with Studio Monitor. Daneila expressed the belief that television companies are not interested in airing quality investigative programs, because they are afraid to lose their control over the content.
Objective 3: Plurality of News
Panelists said the diversity of news sources ensures a plurality of viewpoints in Georgian media, and left the score for this objective at 2.64.
In the past few years, Georgian mainstream news outlets have re-affiliated along various political lines. Despite Gvaramia’s claims that Rustavi2 follows a right-wing centrist ideology, some panelists said that its ties with UNM cannot be ignored. After the 2014 mass departure of the journalists from Maestro TV, and the statements by the channel’s top management about the need to pursue values other than Western, a pro-Russian narrative is believed to have penetrated the channel’s content. Georgian Dream Studio (GDS) is owned by the billionaire Ivanishvili’s family and run by his son. In March 2015, Ivanishvili launched the talk show “2030,” prepared by his organization and airing on GDS. The idea behind the program, as he explained, was to “change the media landscape” — which, he said, is dominated by the opposition UNM party’s “agitation machine” Rustavi 2.
Another major national broadcaster, Imedi TV, is not affiliated with any political party, but it follows the government, Danelia said. According to Transparency International, in March 2015, Inga Grigolia, then-anchor of Imedi’s political talk shows “Reaktsia” and “Imedis Kvira,” faced demands from the parliamentary majority of the Georgian Dream party. They insisted that her shows not address information about the UNM’s planned protest actions.
According to a survey conducted by CRRC for NDI, 87 percent of Georgians name television as their first source of information; 20 percent of television viewers watch the news on foreign channels; and out of those, the majority rely on Russian channels. Among the most watched are Russian Channel One, RTR, and Russia 1. CNN, Euronews, and BBC World Service share the fifth, sixth and the eighth places on the list. Pro-Russian narrative can also be heard in some Georgian media as well.
A study by MDF revealed that Obiektivi TV, known for spreading xenophobic, homophobic and anti-Western sentiment, relies on Russian sources. Obiektivi is included in standard packages of all major cable distributors, and broadcasts on Channel 25 in Batumi. In Tbilisi, Radio Obiektivi is available on FM 105.1. The same study reported openly pro-Russian editorial policies with the newspaper and Internet portal Geworld.ge and the news agency Saqinformi as well.
In the roll-out of the digital switchover, Kuprashvili said that the government failed to guarantee the entire population’s right to access information. According to Kuprashvili, about 50,000 set top boxes or digital convertors were sold, but a small number of people in the remote regions were left out. “And these are the places where the newspaper circulation is almost non-existent — where Internet infrastructure is poor and where the people depend on the television,” he added.
Narimanishvili said that the predominantly Armenian-speaking Javakheti region, where people have always had difficulty receiving local news, is affected. Now the reception is even scarcer, and people will be compelled to watch Russian channels, she said.
Fiber-optic Internet remains a challenge as well, with access for less than half of the Georgian population, according to Tsetskhladze. Mobile Internet is available widely to people even outside the capital. According to the GNCC analytical portal, registered users for mobile Internet (persons and legal entities) is 1.566 million.
Tsetskhladze mentioned the project Internetization and Broadband Development of Georgia, funded by the Ivanishvili-owned Cartu Fund. The project is implemented under the auspices of the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development and will cost around $150,000. It aims to set up fiber-optic Internet infrastructure in about 2,000 settlements in the country, ensuring Internet penetration of 91 percent of the population. The project will be coordinated by the Innovation and Technology Agency of the Ministry; while Open Net, registered under Innovation and Technology Agency and the German company Detecon, a member of Deutsche Telekom group, will be responsible for technical implementation.
A few panelists expressed their concern regarding the project’s sustainability in the aftermath of the 2016 fall parliamentary elections. “When we asked what happens if Georgian Dream party loses the elections in 2016, we didn’t receive an answer,” Tsetskhladze said.
As for new media and social media platforms, Facebook has been traditionally the most popular news source, with Twitter gaining traction. Approximately 1.8 million users are registered on Facebook in Georgia, according to Internet World Stats.
Despite being slammed for its political messages, GPB has improved, some panelists said. “But it is not as good as we want it to be,” Kuprashvili added. When it comes to cultural and public affairs, public television does provide programming that differs from the private broadcasters.
In Koridze’s view, a main challenge of GPB is its absence international reporting. “When the Paris attack happened, GPB did not go there. It did not go to Ukraine for an entire year, nor did it go to Turkey. Despite all the incidents, it didn’t send a journalist… In other words, GPB tells you that you should be closed up in your own shell. I am very concerned with GPB’s lack of global vision,” he said. Dzvelishvili added that GPB has little ambition to produce in-depth or timely reporting.
On the positive side, GPB’s talk show “Realuri Sivrtse” won a special Public Service Award of Georgian Institute of Public Affairs Josh Friedman Special for its in-depth coverage of the disputed Sakrdrisi Gold mine case.
Georgia has ample news agencies providing all sorts of material, the panelists said. Jangirashvili mentioned that most are contracted by various state and public agencies. Mediachecker.ge, a portal monitoring the media’s performance, reported that press releases disseminated by contracting organizations comprise at least 80 percent of the content that news agencies supply. “Making the division between editorial content and content provided through contracting party, i.e. state bodies, is a big issue,” Dzvelishvili said. “For example, when the prime minister’s press office shared information about his visit to Paris, just by Googling the keywords, you would have found identical coverage in most news agencies with the identical title.”
Zura Vardiashvili, editor of Liberali, talked about her experience a few months ago, when he was contacted by a Ministry of Defense representative. The person was inquiring about the reasons for critical coverage of the ministry, and afterwards, he was asked a question: “Haven’t you signed an agreement with us?” Some days later, the ministry delivered the message that it might terminate its contract with the magazine.
Since the 2011 amendments to the Law on Broadcasting, which obligates media outlets to disclose information about their owners, media ownership has been fairly transparent. Nevertheless, Jangirashvili said that ambiguities exist regarding the ownership of Rustavi 2. “Karamanashvili’s case is legendary. Everyone knows that they are not real owners. Transparency is ensured, so that the people can make judgments and conclusions. There is no absolute transparency,” she said.
A Transparency International report that sought to update the ownership information of the major media outlets, including some new media, concluded that broadcasters have not made significant changes in ownership. The report further determined that several cable and Internet outlets are owned by anti-Western and religious organizations. “Their declared revenue is rather small, making it unclear what resources these channels have been using to be able to broadcast,” the report stated.
The media sector has carried out important initiatives in recent years to ensure that ethnic minorities have access to information about public life in the country. Samkhretis Karibche, a small newspaper in the Javakheti region, manages to publish once every two weeks in Armenian and Russian languages. The publication of the newspaper was cancelled in 2014 due to financial hardships, but was restored in October 2015 with the financial support of the US Embassy in Tbilisi. GPB has a few newscasts offered in Armenian and Azerbaijani languages. Kuprashvili said that GARB produces substantial content in the languages of the minorities, but it is still not enough. The community radio station Nori debuted in the region in early 2015 in Russian, Armenian, and Georgian languages. Koridze expressed the belief that the positive impact of this station will be visible a few years from now.
Some panelists said that language barriers and scarcity of programing in minority languages widen the existing gap between the regions and the center of the country. More than the half of the population in minority-settled regions continue receiving their news from Russian channels, Mikashavidze said. Media outlets in the capital city are not keen on reporting the stories that are important to the minority-populated areas. Narimanishvili recounted that in the beginning of 2015, some media spread information about the distribution of Russian passports in Javakheti region, but mainstream Georgian media reporters never visited the place. “The situation is alarming. Narimanishvili cautioned. “If we consider Javakheti region, I wonder how these people receive any news about this country, where they live. Nothing to say about the content diversity… And then they are surprised that people have pro-Russian sentiments.”
Kuprashvili said that sparse reporting in minority languages, and absence of the content familiar to them, also determines their viewership. Mikashavidze said that not knowing exactly what type of content is available about Georgia results from the lack of analysis and research of the media content. “We don’t offer an alternative, and we don’t know what they watch.”
Certain international topics catch the attention of the Georgian media, but coverage of international news is never systematic. Netgazeti.ge runs a section on the South Caucasus with daily updates of the events from the three Caucasus countries. Koridze said that if not for this section, it would be difficult to learn about current events in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Objective 4: Business Management
The decline in the Objective 4 score is a clear indication that the panelists do not see the media as operating as efficient and self-sustaining enterprises. That viewpoint is probably due to the weakening of the advertising market, along with the economic crisis in that shook the country in 2015.
“I believe that one of the challenges of the Georgian media is financial stability, because Georgian media are more dependent on donor money, as they are not able to cover their expenses from advertising revenues,” Dzvelishvili said. “In our country, media are seen as political instruments, and instead of using media as a platform for political debates, they attack the media.”
Gumbaridze provided statistics on advertising. “For the first time after 2009, the advertising market in 2015 shrank, dropping from around $48 million the previous year to $41 million,” he said. The economic crisis and streamlined changes made to the Law on Advertising in 2015 are the key reasons blamed for the decline. “It could be foreseen when the governing bodies decided to adopt EU directives in a rush and without considering all probable consequences,” Gumbaridze explained.
The Parliament of Georgia enacted the amendments to advertising regulations, limiting advertising time to 12 minutes per hour and four minutes for sponsorship services from April 1, 2015. The enactment was a rejection of suggestions of many media outlets and experts to postpone enforcement to 2016. “The decision was based upon GNCC member Koba Bekauri’s inaccurate, page-long conclusion projecting that this (the amendment) would increase the ad market,” said Gumbaridze.
The panelists noted that to address the challenges brought by the new legislation, national broadcasters raised ad prices. Consequently, advertisers cut budgets for small-scale media but maintained advertising at Rustavi 2 and Imedi TV, as these channels ensure national reach. According to Gumbaridze, although Rustavi 2 had no increase this year, it still took some 61–62 percent of the total television advertising revenues. Around 31 percent went to Imedi TV, while Maestro’s revenues decreased significantly from the previous year’s 6 million to 2–3 million Georgian Lari. “Perhaps almost 98 percent of the total television advertising revenues is distributed among these three channels,” Gumbaridze said.
Forecasts for dispensing advertising money to small-size media outlets, in the wake of the amendments, were not fulfilled. In fact, revenues of small and regional media diminished in 2015. Most media struggle to find multiple revenue sources to get by. Tsetskhladze said that Netgazeti.ge’s advertising money is only 23 percent of its total income; the rest comes from international donors.
The digital switchover brought additional financial problems to regional media. Advertisers terminated long-term contracts with local media, doubting the outlets’ ability to manage the switch to digital broadcasting.
The panelists agreed that the industry is not big enough to support the whole media sphere. The fact that Rustavi 2 has become profitable in recent years is considered as an accident, not an industry standard, and it is because the channel’s ratings are high, and sales are efficient. “If tomorrow it happens that Imedi TV develops effective management and takes more market share, then… Rustavi 2 will become ineffectual,” commented Gumbaridze. Jangirahvili further noted that the market is not stable, as all television channels require subsidies to function.
The economic crisis also forced businesses to cut down on advertising budgets. The market shrank considerably at the expense of local businesses “because they were incapable to keep with rising advertising prices,” said Gumbaridze, tying this outcome to the fast-paced changes in regulations. He further explained that international companies have a luxury to maintain advertising activities when sales go down — something that local businesses cannot afford.
Jangirashvili offered a pessimistic overview of the 2016 market, claiming it would be “difficult” and “financially unstable” because of the emergence of the new measurement authority. The panelists argued that television companies and advertising agencies will have to either choose one or subscribe to both. This will further affect the already-stagnating market. Some panelists said that they see political interests in the launch of the second research agency. “It enters the market without the typical industry invitation,” said Gumbaridze.
In summary, the broadcast media market is underdeveloped and relies predominantly on advertising money. The media does not diversify commercial revenue sources. Gumbaridze spoke of the foreign trend, in which ad revenues are becoming less important for broadcast media; while direct sales, such as cable payments and repeated reruns, become more significant in revenue generation. None of this is practiced in Georgia, where the market is considered too unstable. Gumbaridze gave examples: “Silknet and Caucasus Online, IP television stations, do not pay even a Tetri to any television channels in Georgia while rebroadcasting the channels and generating revenues,” he said.
He also noted that ad agencies facilitate development of Georgia’s advertising market. “The agencies have proficiency and expertise in media planning. They are far better prepared now than they used to be,” he said.
According to the panelists, Georgian banks do not offer any special loan packages for media outlets, because they refuse to admit that media is a special type of business. Therefore, banks provide only consumer loans to develop services or mortgage loans to purchase property. Kuprashvili said that Georgian banks think the media sector lacks sustainability, and is riskier than other businesses. “When we needed to purchase equipment, none of the banks gave our television companies a loan. The print media share the same fate,” Kuprashvili added.
The Media Development Loan Fund, sponsored by philanthropist George Soros, provided a loan to Batumelebi with a two percent annual rate. Tsetskhladze said that Batumelebi repaid the loan in mid-2015.
Government tenders are distributed unevenly, panelists said. For television channels, they are announced under a quota system, i.e. in line with their ratings. Almost the same amount of money is dispersed to Rustavi 2 and Imedi TV, the two leading channels in the market. Tsetskhladze said that tenders are given to large media companies with bigger viewerships. “Companies like us will never participate in such competitions,” said Kuprashvili.
In 2015 some solid steps were also taken towards improving existing practices of measuring online media. Advertising agencies purchased AdRiver, a system for managing and monitoring Internet advertising that enables targeted online sales and monitoring of ad campaigns in Georgia. According to the panelists, TV MRGE also initiated the installation of online media measurement tools. These were very important initiatives toward developing the advertising market.
In terms of measuring audiences, however, practices did not advance any further compared to 2014. Only the television industry is measured by TV MR GE, a licensee of Nielsen that utilizes international measurement standards. Cable television, radio, online, and print media have to cope with not having such universal audience data. Panelists named this as a key reason behind the uneven distribution of advertising money among outlets.
Regional television stations face the same problem. “No agency measures audiences in regional media,” said Kuprashvili. TV MR GE works only in several big cities in the regions, leaving out some of the most well-off provinces such as Kakheti, Samtskhe Javakheti, and Kvemo Kartli. These provinces have higher spending per head and could be attractive to potential advertisers, noted Kuprashvili.
Some online media outlets commonly use Google Analytics, which is not sufficient to speculate about the demographics of the websites or eventually affect sales volume. Advertiser’s lack of trust in the data that websites provide also affects sales decisions. “If there were international measurement agencies and targeted sales in the Internet market, it (the market) would be three times bigger,” said Gumbaridze.
Limited official information is available on print media circulations. On its online portal geostat.ge, the National Statistics Office of Georgia reports 313 registered newspapers in the country, with a circulation of 60.4 million in 2015. However, no circulation data is available for individual publications.
In 2016, a new audience research agency, Tri Media Intelligence (TMI), a Kantar Media partner, entered the Georgian market. One of the agency founders is an editor at Palitra TV. TMI director Tsotne Mirtskhulava explained that the agency will offer a larger and more balanced research panel compared to TV MR GE, along with better technologies and measurement of more television channels. While Kuprashvili argued in favor of the TMI research panel, Gumbaridze expressed doubt that the entire population will be measured even with two agencies. Kuprashvili also pointed out that “TMI doesn’t have plans to measure regions properly, and only intends to set people meters in the same towns where TV MR GE is present.”
Objective 5: Supporting Institutions
The score for this objective remained almost the same as last year. A handful of professional associations, together with civil society groups, work to promote the interests of individual journalists and media outlets, but not all of them are functioning, the panelists said.
“Some of the existing associations and unions failed to live up to their purpose,” said Ia Mamaladze, chair of the Georgian Regional Media Association and publisher of Guria News. The Georgian Press Association maintains a formal existence, and the Journalists’ Trade Union has never really managed to evolve.
The Media Advocacy Coalition unites media and rights groups including GYLA, Transparency International, GARB, GCJE, and Mediaclub. The coalition showed some success in 2015 in advocating for media interests, and has taken an active role in supporting Rustavi2 journalists. Still, according to Gela Mtivlishvili, the Georgian Regional Broadcasters’ Association has by far remained the most active organization among those that are lobbying for media interests and are fundraising. “If not for this association, regional media would not be able to switch to digital broadcasting,” said Dzvelishvili.
Free from political and government influences and commercial interests, GCJE has become more powerful in the past years, panelists said. The charter’s work has gone beyond journalistic circles, raising the importance of ethical standards among the general public. “When politicians or public figures say something and they are disgruntled by the media’s reaction, but defamation is absent, they go to the charter to complain,” Tsimakuridze said. In 2015, GCJE launched the media portal mediachecker.ge, which analyzes flaws in television, radio, online, and print media. Dzvelishvili noted that mediachecker.ge raised the susceptibility of the Georgian media to ethical breaches.
Currently, CGJE has approximately 254 members both in the capital and in the regions, according to Zuriashvili, who chaired the organization in 2015. Throughout 2014, CGJE discussed and resolved 35 complaints.
In September 2015, The Ministry of Defense lodged a complaint through GCJE against several journalists and a producer at Rustavi 2, on the charges of airing unverified news. One such news report was on the controversy surrounding the possible involvement of Georgian soldiers in the sexual assault of children in Central African Republic while serving as peacekeepers. A GCJE committee investigation revealed that original news reports were based only on interviews with local community members.
A gap remains in legal support for journalists, now that GYLA has closed down due to donor funding termination. Panelists expressed concern that few organizations remain working on the protection of journalists’ rights. Tsetskhladze recalled that when Netgazeti.ge sued TV Ertsulovneba, the company affiliated with Georgian patriarchy, for violating broadcast ethics, it was challenging for her outlet to handle the case. “The procedure was very difficult for us, with filing the lawsuit, preparing the legal documents, et cetera. We had to ask an independent media lawyer to help us,” Tsetskhladze said.
Since these organizations rely on donor funding, their visibility wanes and thrives depending on the flow of funds. At the end of December 2015, GYLA announced the start of a new media project with funding from the East-East Management Institute’s ACCESS project. The project aims to investigate violations of journalists’ rights, interference in the work of media outlets, and the government’s reactions to such instances. GYLA’s website announcement states that it will only provide legal support for journalists and media outlets in special cases.
Andguladze said that even though the Council of Europe (CoE) is not a donor organization, it will support GCJE in 2016 with the framework of a EU/CoE joint project “Promoting Freedom, Professionalism and Pluralism of the Media.” The council will also provide networking possibilities with similar organizations in the South Caucasus region and Eastern Europe. USAID continues to support media through the Media for Transparent and Accountable Governance (M-TAG) program, whose Regional Media Sustainability Initiative aims to assist regional media outlets in their efforts to become profitable, viable businesses.
Georgia has more than 40 journalism programs offered at approximately 20 universities, but panelists said that they are somewhat out of touch with market needs. Panelists disagreed as to whether these schools offer hands-on training and quality education to its students. “Since we are assessing the overall situation, we cannot judge about the quality of the new graduates of affluent journalism schools,” Mtivlishvili said. Narimanishvili agreed, adding that young journalists often lack basic skills. Maia Tabagari, a news producer at Imedi TV, claimed that innovative approaches implemented in some media schools with the help of donor organizations have yielded favorable outcomes. The journalism multimedia centers at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs and Tbilisi State University have been functioning for several years now.
The panelists said that the type and level of training programs and workshops that foreign experts offer do not always correspond with the wishes of Georgian media professionals. “For example, the foreign trainers coming here teach us to register on Twitter,” Tsetskhladze said. But needs-based training programs are also on rise; Dzvelishvili mentioned classes organized by GCJE in the framework of IREX’s Health Care Program as one example.
Sometimes, the timing of the training programs is not ideal for Georgian journalists. Editors and journalists on the panel said that sometimes, even though they would want their new journalists to attend, they are not able to do so because of the lack of human resources. “If they all go to trainings, we must stop working,” Tsetkhladze explained.
Most printing houses are owned privately, and the printing industry is free from government interference. But publishing quality suffers drastically, and panelists named this as the most damaging factor to the print media. “There are very few publishing houses that print newspapers at all, and even fewer that print on a quality level,” said Nestan Tsetskhladze, noting that she was utterly disappointed with the experience she had with printing Kviris Palitra. “The color and text was difficult to recognize,” she said. Some newspapers, like Netgazeti, refuse to use the services provided by Asaval Dasavali. “I know it is business, but for me, it is a question of principle and matter of values,” explained Tsetskhladze. High prices on printing is another problem in Georgia.
Channels of media distribution (including cable, television towers, and multiplexes) are apolitical and not monopolized. But Kuprashvili said that Channel 25 in Batumi faced impediments with installing digital equipment on the television tower in Adjara, which made her believe that political interests were involved. For three months, Channel 25 tried to obtain permission from Adjara Public Broadcaster and the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development, which owns the land where the tower is located.
Georgia at a Glance
· Population: 4,931,226 million (2015 est., CIA World Factbook)
· Capital city: Tbilisi
· Ethnic groups (% of population): Georgian 83.8%, Azeri 6.5%, Armenian 5.7%, Russian 1.5%, other 2.5% (2002 est., CIA World Factbook)
· Religion (% of population): Orthodox Christian 83.9%, Muslim 9.9%, Armenian-Gregorian 3.9%, Catholic 0.8%, other 0.8%, none 0.7% (2002 est., CIA World Factbook)
· Languages (% of population): Georgian 71% (official), Russian 9%, Armenian 7%, Azeri 6%, other 7% (2015 est., CIA World Factbook)
· GNI (2014-Atlas): $16.74 billion (World Bank Development Indicators, 2016)
· GNI per capita (2014-PPP): $ 7,510 (World Bank Development Indicators, 2016)
· Literacy rate: 99.8%; male 99.8%, female 99.7 % (2015 est., CIA World Factbook)
· President or top authority: President Giorgi Margvelashvili (since October 27, 2013)
· Number of active media outlets: Print: 313 newspapers (National Statistics Office of Georgia, 2015); Television: 41 satellite, 54 digital terrestrial and 76 cable channels; Radio Stations: 76 (Georgian National Communications Commission, 2015)
· Newspaper circulation statistics: Rezonansi (4,000–5,000 daily), Kviris Palitra (55,000 weekly) (individual newspaper claims)
· Broadcast ratings: Highest rated television stations: Rustavi2 (4.94%), Imedi (3.89%), Comedy Channel (1.09%), Maestro (1.03%), Chanel 1 (0.66%) (TV MR GE, 2015)
· Annual advertising revenue in the media sector: Television: approximately $30 million; Radio: $4.5 million (Georgian National Communication Commission, GNCC analytical portal, 2015)
· News agencies: info 9, Black Sea Press, Iveroni, NovostiGruzia, Sarke, Interpressnews, Iprinda, ItarTass, Kavkazpress, Media News, Prime Time News, Pirveli, Georgian Business Consulting News, Georgian HotNews, GeoNews, Expressnews, World Sport, ambebi.ge, Business Press News, Droni.ge, epn.ge, Aianews.ge, Kakheti Information Center, Primetimenews.ge, Kvemo Kartli Information Center, Mtkheta-Tianeti Information Center, for.ge, Frontnews, civil.ge, agenda.ge, economic.ge (www.yellowpages.ge).
· Internet subscribers: 581,813 (Georgian National Communications Commission, 2015)
List of Panel Participants
Nino Danelia, journalism professor, Ilia State University; Independent Media Expert, Tbilisi
Nino Jangirashvili, director, TV Kavkasia, Tbilisi
Natia Kuprashvili, executive director, Georgian Association of Regional Television Broadcasters, Tbilisi
Ia Mamaladze, publisher, Guria News, Chokhatauri
Maia Tabagari, director, Imedi TV news service, Tbilisi
Zura Gumbaridze, executive director, Sales Department, Rustavi 2, Tbilisi
Nino Narimanishvili, editor, Samkhretis Karibche, Akhaltsikhe
Gela Mtivlishvili, director, Kakheti Information Center, Gurjaani
Ekaterine Tsimakuridze, coordinator, Georgian Young Lawyers Association, Tbilisi
Mamuka Andguladze, project officer, Council of Europe, Tbilisi
Maia Mikashavidze, professor of journalism, Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, Tbilisi
Nestan Tsetskhladze, editor, Netgazeti.ge, Tbilisi
Nata Dzvelishvili, Executive Director, Ethics Charter of Georgian Journalists, Tbilisi
Nino Zuriashvili, investigative reporter, Studio Monitor, Tbilisi
Zura Vardiashvili, editor, Liberali, Tbilisi
Zviad Koridze, independent media expert, Tbilisi
Ekaterina Basilaia, Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi
Ekaterina Basilaia, Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi
Nino Makhviladze, Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, Tbilisi
The panel discussion was convened on December 5, 2015.
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