Freedom of the Press
The constitution and the Law on Freedom of Speech and Expression guarantee press freedom, but these rights are often restricted. In 2008, the government increased its control over the media and showed a reduced willingness to adhere to the progressive legislation it had adopted in recent years. Despite a rule that allowed the parliamentary opposition to nominate a member to the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC), the panel remained subject to government influence. Maestro, a local television channel covering Tbilisi and nearby cities, was denied its application to produce political programs. Maestro won a subsequent court ruling on the matter, but it was still not producing any news programs at year’s end. Under strong pressure from the opposition and the public, the government launched a reform of the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB), which includes two television and radio stations. The reform would make it more independent, using a model similar to that of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The GPB is currently still governed by a board appointed by the parliament, although four of the nine members are named by opposition parties. The GPB receives 7 percent of its financing from the state budget.
There was an improvement in press freedom prior to the May parliamentary elections, following strong criticism of government conduct toward the media in late 2007. After the May elections, however, the government sought to strengthen its position again. During the conflict between Georgian, Russian, and Russian-allied South Ossetian forces in early August, three journalists were killed and at least 10 were wounded. All sides obstructed media operations during the brief conflict. The Georgian government ensured that broadcast media did not report unfavorably on government actions and limited access to public information, while Russian and separatist troops prevented journalists from entering certain territories. In general, media in both South Ossetia and Georgia’s other separatist region, Abkhazia, are tightly controlled by the local authorities.
Outside of the war period, other instances of media restriction and harassment occurred. At the end of June, news coverage was cut back to eliminate all talk shows and analytical programs. NGOs assert that this was due to government pressure. In September, Kavkasia TV’s transmission was twice interrupted, supposedly due to “technical issues,” but the station director believes the interruptions were designed to prevent it from airing scheduled criticism of the government’s actions during the August war. The director also claims that in June financial police pressured companies to cease advertising with Kavkasia. Journalists Maka Tsiklauri and Irakli Goguadze of the online video magazine Presa.ge claimed to have been victims of government pressure in four separate incidents in which they were physically assaulted or had their equipment seized. In mid-July the newspaper Batumelebi received a death threats by e-mail, and after it went public with the story and informed the prosecutor’s and ombudsman’s offices, the paper received a second threatening message.
For a small country, Georgia has a large number of broadcast and print outlets, and most print media continued to express diverse views throughout the year. There are 200 independent newspapers and several independent or privately owned television and radio stations in addition to those run by GPB. Four Tbilisi-based television stations have nationwide coverage. Television is by far the leading source of news, with some 85 percent of the population able to access the most popular channel. The print media continue to suffer financially, and the combination of the war and the global financial crisis affected revenue for all media, resulting in reduced diversity and a decrease in news programming.International media groups such as Reporters Sans Frontieres and the Committee to Protect Journalists have sounded the alarm about the government’s heavy-handed efforts to silence criticism, particularly with respect to television. Ever since the independent and pro-opposition Imedi TV was forced off the air in late 2007 during a period of social unrest, the government has actively sought to ensure that broadcast media with large audiences are owned by government allies. As a result, stations such as Rustavi 2, Mze, and Imedi TV—which resumed broadcasting in September under a new owner—have maintained a strong progovernment line. Imedi had been owned by business magnate Badri Patarkatsishvili, but he passed away in February 2008, and his widow subsequently lost a legal battle over the station with Patarkatsishvili’s former business partner. Imedi is now effectively government controlled. Rustavi 2’s owner and founder alleged in November that the government seized the station from him in 2004 after President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power. Media ownership remains opaque; it is unclear who is behind GeoMediaGroup, which now controls Rustavi 2. Journalists often work without contracts, leading them to practice self-censorship over fears of losing their jobs. There were no reports of government interference with or monitoring of internet use in 2008. Approximately 8 percent of the population had internet access.