The greatest challenge for Georgia's media environment the pressure from the government and attempts at interference in the editorial policies of media outlets.
The Georgian media landscape can be described as robust, competitive and pluralistic, but highly polarised with television channels being aligned with one political party or another. In this article, the accent is on television channels because television is the main source of news and information for the majority (69 per cent) of the country’s population.
Media pluralism is ensured through diverse ownership. But since the Georgian advertising market is very small and the media is still not a sustainable business, in most cases the media owners are businessmen who do not perceive media as a business but a tool for maintaining either their own business or supporting their political stance.
Despite some political polarisation, for years Georgian broadcast media outlets have been presenting a range of views and creating a plurality of political opinions and positions. However, better journalistic quality is desired to produce more fact-based and issue-based reporting, based upon analysis and ethical standards, more oriented on public interest and less politically biased.
Emerging companies and government pressure
The plurality of the television media landscape has increased and polarisation has decreased recently with emerging new independent television companies that are not directly linked to any of political interest. In general, Georgia’s media outlets have become more independent from their owners and even general directors. Journalists try to defend their editorial independence by refusing to obey any form of government control. They either leave or remain part of a channel (Maestro TV), organise resistance within a channel (Rustavi 2) or stay and start a strike (Adjara TV).
The basic problem of Georgian media environment at present is not so much media polarisation as it is pressure from the government. The closer the parliamentary elections are, the more intense the government’s pressure is on private media.
High-level ruling party officials and the chair of the ruling party, Bidzina Ivanishvili – who is also considered an informal ruler of the country – make statements that are hostile to the independent media, criticise journalists for their supposedly biased reporting, labelling independent media as “nationals” (i.e. they try to link critical media to the opposition party United National Movement).
Several court trials that are perceived as politically motivated have been launched against owners or their family members, shareholders and managers of almost all independent television channels. The Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia uses financial pressure selectively by modifying and rescheduling due-dates of debt repayments for pro-government media and deny to do the same for critical to the government television channels.
Recently, there were cases of physically attacking journalists and forcing them to leave public committee hearings in the parliament. Some state officials go further to limit free speech and expression and advocate more restrictive legislation. Political and church elites, including President Salome Zurabishvili, call to put limits on media freedom and move professional and ethical issues of journalism from the self-regulation to regulation of the media content.
Given the context of political pressures and the government’s resources, the private media is forced to resist and become an actor against the government rather than non-partisan information platform.
A recurring problem
The Georgian government was trying to control private television stations ever since they emerged in Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. President Eduard Shevardnadze tries to start an “investigation of economic violation” against the most popular independent TV Channel Rustavi 2 in 2001 and sent the Investigative Department of the Ministry of National Security to paralyse the broadcasting of the channel.
In 2003, when Rose Revolution took place in Georgia, Rustavi 2 was perceived as a close ally of opposition political parties, but its existence was crucial for the citizens in order to get the whole account and wrongdoings of the government tampering with the elections.
Outlets whose owners supported the country’s political leadership dominated the media landscape in the years of the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili. However the demand for alternative news stories was high and the main opposition channel Imedi TV, owned by tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, soon became popular. Patarkatsishvili publicly declared it in his political interest to change Saakashvili’s government.
Imedi TV was producing content that was critical to Saakashvili’s government and, at the same time, promoted the interests of its owner. The existence of Imedi TV also made it possible to air one the most critical story about the involvement of Saakashvili’s Interior Minister and other authorities in the murder case of a young man named Sandro Girgvliani.
Since 2012, when Georgian dream came into the power, Rustavi 2 became one of the most viewed opposition channels holding the government and other powerful elites accountable to the public, though perceived as having an opposition party editorial line. While the Georgian media for years tried avoiding sensitive topics, for instance, criticism of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Rustavi 2 started talking about corruption in the orphanages being under the patronage of the church.
One of the most influential story series that Rustavi 2 aired was the so-called “the cyanide affair” covering the supposed poisoning attempt of the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The stories involved examples of corruption and budget misspending as well as personal attacks of archbishops.
Soon after the airing those TV stories, the evaluation of the performance of Georgian Orthodox Church worsened for the first time in years. In opinion polls conducted prior to the TV series, 72 per cent of the citizens said the church was performing either very well or well. Afterwards, only 58 per cent of the population said that the church was performing either very well (14 per cent) or well (44 per cent).
Information on wrongdoings
After the change of the ownership of Rustavi 2 and, subsequently, the change of its editorial policy, the majority of journalists of the newsroom and political programs left the channel. They founded two new television channels, Mtavari Arkhi and Formula TV.
Mtavari Arkhi is perceived as a television channel affiliated to Saakashvili with a similar political agenda. However, they are often the first to inform the public on wrongdoings of the Georgian government.
Among many exclusive stories, a very recent one was on bad conditions in clinical immunology research centres for infectious diseases and AIDS, where citizens who have contracted COVID-19 or those at a high risk level are being quarantined. After the story was aired, the former healthare minister apologised and the government promised to renovate building accordingly.
An exclusive story on amnesty for prisoners accused of murder was also influential. After the public outcry, the amnesty process was temporarily suspended and the government started to create concrete criteria on who could be released under amnesty.
Apart from the television channels that are perceived as politically biased, there are several television stations providing nonpartisan news coverage. Adjara TV has an exceptional reputation and important role as a public broadcaster, among other independent channels.
Whereas the Georgian Public Broadcaster was accused of being pro-government for many years, international and local media monitoring organisations have praised its regional branch – Adjara TV. It is seen as an “impartial and balanced broadcaster in a strongly polarised media environment” with independent editorial policies and high-quality neutral reporting standards. Currently the journalists in Adjara TV are resisting government pressure by organising a strike and call for more support from international media organisations.
Overall, there is an obvious party-line bias in both pro-government and pro-opposition media. However, even those pro-opposition television channels with signs of bias, remain more balanced in their sources and opinions than pro-government media.
More importantly, the non-governmental media is trying to hold the government accountable and inform the public so that it might cause a positive change for Georgian citizens.
Therefore, the greatest challenge for Georgia’s media environment and the audience is rather the pressure from the government and attempts at interference in the editorial policies of media outlets. Polarisation is decreasing because of the emergence of new journalistic cohorts dedicated to high professional standards and public interest, declaring “they work for the public.”
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.