2005: Freedom of The Press – Gerogia Review
Status: Partly Free
Legal Environment: 14
Political Influences: 26
Economic Pressures: 16
Total Score: 56
Press freedom is constitutionally guaranteed in Georgia, but despite improvements in legal provisions during 2004, increased political and economic pressures continued to limit media freedom. In June, the parliament adopted the Law on Freedom of Speech and Expression, replacing the 1991 Law on the Press and Other Mass Media. The new act emphasizes freedom of expression guarantees and clarifies legal restrictions on journalists. The law decriminalizes libel and shifts the burden of proof in defamation cases to the plaintiff; it also relaxes provisions on disclosing state secrets. However, in the absence of independent courts, the law has yet to be fully implemented. At the end of 2004, parliament adopted the Law on Broadcasting, which authorizes the transformation of the state broadcasting company into a public television station.
Georgia has approximately 200 independent newspapers and 7 independent televisions stations, 3 of which have national coverage. However, the government exercises indirect control over many broadcasters, while the overall number of independent print and broadcast outlets has diminished. Journalists express wide-ranging and critical views, but diversity in the media decreased this year because of heightened self-censorship. Journalists routinely get informal directions from ruling authorities, media owners, and editors. At times, government officials denied reporters access to public meetings. Official pressure on the media increased in 2004. In February, the Independent Association of Georgian Journalists reported that President Mikhail Saakashvili openly tried to discredit the independent print media. Violence against journalists occurred mostly in the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are tightly restricted by their de facto governments. Escalating tensions in the semi-independent region of Ajaria led to a difficult media environment, including frequent assaults on journalists. During the March parliamentary elections, the Ajarian government prohibited media access to opposition candidates.
Owing to the poor economic situation, media outlets are dependent on subsidies, which are linked to political interests. Media operating outside the capital are especially vulnerable. The government subsidizes many newspapers, and most broadcast stations rely on government support because of a lack of advertising revenue. A number of television companies have seen nontransparent changes in ownership, with the new owners being pro-government. National broadcaster Rustavi-2 was a major influence in the November 2003 “Rose Revolution.” This year, the government agreed to postpone Rustavi-2’s debt payments and helped the station remain on the air. Local media organizations claim Rustavi-2 now broadcasts more favorable coverage of the government. Ajaria Television, which was under strict control of the former local political leader, is now politically controlled by the new authorities. The government, claiming it was clamping down on corruption, obstructed the work of independent media. Financial police raided the offices of the English-language weekly Georgian Times; the suspected motive of the raid was political. The government also disrupted operations at the opposition television station Iberia TV, owned by corporate giant Omega Group, citing financial fraud as grounds for the raid. Omega Group’s owner had close ties to the previous Ajarian leader. The government’s struggle against both corruption and the shadow economy, in which authorities have detained former state officials and closed businesses, has made businesspeople less inclined to support independent media outlets that criticize the government.