2006: Freedom of The Press – Gerogia Review
Status: Partly Free
Legal Environment: 13
Political Influences: 27
Economic Pressures: 17
Total Score: 57
In 2005, two years after the Rose Revolution, the new government’s centralization of power led to a slight setback in media freedom, despite stated commitments to democracy. Georgia’s constitution and new Law on Freedom of Speech and Expression provide for press freedom, and the president and Parliament improved legislation concerning media by adopting a new Law on Broadcasting in early 2005. Libel has also been decriminalized. However, the lack of independence of the judiciary still causes journalists to doubt whether courts can implement the laws fairly. Media watchdogs point to the particular need to implement laws guaranteeing access to information, which authorities are generally slow or unwilling to provide, regardless of the country’s Freedom of Information Act. In April, a presidential decree changed the structure of the courts in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, but the arbitrary process for deciding which judges were dismissed supported the argument that the executive controls the judiciary. Journalists generally lack professionalism but took steps in 2005 to unite various media associations within a media council that will promote a journalistic code of ethics.
Concern exists that media were more pro-governmental and less critical in 2005 than before the revolution, because of subtle government repression. This change is attributed to the purchase of broadcasting channels, like the television station Rustavi-2, by individuals connected to the current ruling elite. While newspapers remain relatively free of official influence, the government applied pressure on owners of television channels in order to control media content. For example, in April Imedi TV owner Badri Patarkatsishvili allegedly ordered the station not to broadcast a story on police corruption on one of its weekly television programs. Also, the independent station TV Mze, owned by two members of Parliament, canceled a talk show immediately after commentators criticized authorities’ dispersal of a July protest in Tbilisi. Additionally, in August, two executives of Channel 202, Shalva Ramishvili and David Kokheridze, were arrested for extorting approximately $30,000 from a parliamentarian, Koba Bekauri, in exchange for not airing an investigative report about his business transactions. Journalists worried that the incident was selective and a reaction to Channel 202’s critical coverage.
Self-censorship continues to be a problem, as Georgia’s television channels slant their news coverage in favor of government allies. In regions such as the Ajaria Autonomous Republic, mass media also seem to reflect and conform to the views of the regional leadership, while media freedom in the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remained tightly restricted. Furthermore, harassment by public officials and attacks against journalists continued to occur in 2005, including the physical abuse by police of reporters covering the July protests in Tbilisi; beatings in September of Channel 202 anchor Irakli Kakabadze and of investigative journalist Saba Tsitsikashvili of the local daily Saxalxo Gazeti; and the throwing of a hand grenade into the home of Gela Mtivlishvili, editor of the weekly Imedi.
The poor shape of Georgia’s economy is an additional obstacle to its media development. Pluralism of news sources remained unchanged in 2005, as three major private television stations (TV Imedi, TV Mze, and Rustavi-2) competed in the national broadcast market. Because the owners of these private stations have ties to government, concerns exist that they focus on their own political agendas rather than the public interest. In 2005, the Law on Broadcasting transformed Georgia’s state television and radio into public broadcasters, but there is widespread belief that the government retains control over them as well. Meanwhile, the country has no state-owned newspapers officially registered among its approximately 300 papers, and the state grants small subsidies to only 2 minority newspapers. Several Tbilisi-based newspapers are distributed nationwide, but smaller newspapers outside the capital struggle to survive financially. Printing houses are mostly private and independent, while Georgia’s distribution system remains underdeveloped, and the only distribution company with nationwide reach is the state-owned Sakpressa. Online media are being developed, although the percentage of people with access to the internet is still small. However, there were no reported restrictions on foreign media or internet use for the 4 percent of the population with the means to access it.