Despite the recent change in leadership, Georgian media seems unlikely to develop non-partisan reporting in the near future, argues Freedom House analyst Katherin Machalek.
Amid great fanfare, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appeared at a rally in Tbilisi on April 19 in support of his United National Movement (UNM), which had ruled the country from 2003 until it lost the October 2012 parliamentary elections. Since then, the party has suffered a serious decline in popularity, which it desperately hopes to recover before presidential elections in October 2013. This desperation was captured in news coverage of the April event: pro-UNM media featured members of the party claiming as many as 10,000 supporters at the rally, whereas media affiliated with the new parliamentary majority, the Georgian Dream Movement (GDM), quoted current government officials who estimated that only 5,000-6,000 were present. No reliable figure could be confirmed, since the numbers varied widely depending on the political bent of the news source.
Similar bias was evident in coverage of the demonstrations surrounding Saakashvili’s public address on February 8, when confrontations between supporters of the rival parties resulted in injuries to protesters and at least one representative of the UNM. According to analysis conducted by Transparency International Georgia, television stations that remain under the direction of UNM loyalists focused on attacks against members of the UNM and aggressive behavior of protesters toward the former government, while pro-GDM channels highlighted provocations by UNM members. The coverage reaffirmed that despite the recent political changes in the country, media still present events through a distorted partisan lens. Both incidents reflect ongoing tensions stemming from the uneasy cohabitation of newly elected Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the GDM, and President Saakashvili, as the struggle for political power spills over into Georgia’s already heavily polarized media landscape.
After months of ruthless campaigning, the GDM surprised the world when it prevailed over the ruling UNM in parliamentary elections in October. The historic results made Ivanishvili prime minister and gave his party the majority of seats in parliament, marking Georgia’s first peaceful transfer of power since independence. However, this remarkable handover of governance has so far done little to depoliticize Georgia’s press environment. While Georgia has fairly democratic media legislation for the region and a wide range of pluralism in opinions, the media have been characterized by heavy political influence and weak journalistic ethics. Under Saakashvili’s UNM-led government, the state increasingly asserted its dominance in the media market, reaching a low point in 2007 and 2008 with extralegal raids on independent and opposition-oriented television stations. The state seized two major television stations with national reach, Rustavi 2 and Imedi TV, and proceeded to shape them into government mouthpieces. Through the use of administrative resources and restrictions against unfriendly media, Saakashvili’s administration also ensured that the two remained the most accessible and popular national television stations in Georgia.
While print and radio news play a minor role in influencing Georgian society, the public continues to turn to television as its main source of information, notwithstanding the fact that most Georgians believe the major stations serve political interests. Therefore, it is only logical that the major political forces in Georgia should view the control of national airwaves as a necessary means to maintain power. Media outlets in turn depend on this political interest, as the advertising market is insufficient to sustain truly independent journalism. It has become a tradition in Georgia for media to align with one political camp or the other in order to survive financially. Ivanishvili was well aware of this fact when he decided to enter politics. One of his early strategic moves was to purchase TV Igrika, which became TV9, to counter the smear campaign that UNM-controlled media had launched against him. The pro-GDM channel saw Ivanishvili’s party through its victory at the polls with the help of leaked video footage of prison abuses that shamed Saakashvili and his party for their failure to reform the justice system.
Since October’s elections, changes have occurred in the Georgian media landscape, including surprising transfers of ownership and the termination of several smaller stations that had supported the former government. On the surface, these changes might suggest a move toward normalization or a balancing out of the previously pro-UNM slant in the country’s mix of outlets. However, on closer examination, the changes appear to confirm media’s continued, if not strengthened, role in the political arena. In fact, the political parties are fortifying their hold on major media outlets in order to adjust to the new political environment, and preparing to continue their ongoing battle for influence in the media.
Close Friends and Financial Problems
Facing considerably reduced access to state resources, almost immediately after the elections, the UNM began consolidating its capital and constructing a new media strategy for battling the GDM from the opposition. The first step involved forgiving the debt of the outlets to which it had been awarding the most substantial financial assistance. For years prior to October 2012, the two private stations with national reach, Rustavi 2 and Imedi TV, had been owned by elites close to the UNM. Until new legislation on broadcasting banned off-shore media ownership in 2011, Rustavi 2 was registered in the Virgin Islands and its ownership remained opaque. As of 2011, it was owned by Levan Karamanashvili and Giorgi Gegeshidze, who both had ties to Saakashvili’s inner circle. Imedi TV was owned by the Georgian Media Production Group Ltd, whose shares were divided among four wealthy, UNM-friendly businessmen.
Despite the financial assets of their owners, both received substantial government subsidies through tax amnesties — first in 2010 and again in mid-October 2012 — which forgave their combined tax debt of around 40m GEL (approximately $24m). Media watchdogs harshly questioned the tax amnesties because they only benefitted outlets that had been loyal to the UNM, putting more critical media at a financial disadvantage. Immediately after the 2012 election results were finalized, Imedi TV canceled a number of popular programs and stated its plans to reformat itself into a news network. About ten days later, and a few days after the disclosure of the second tax amnesty, the Georgian Media Production Group Ltd announced that Imedi TV would be transferred back to the family of Badri Patarkatsishvili, the late former owner from whom it was violently and controversially seized by the UNM-led government in 2007, after Patarkatsishvili declared his intention to fund opposition parties. Patarkatsishvili’s widow reports that she received an anonymous phone call after October’s election results were posted, offering to sell her the station for a symbolic price — the GEL equivalent of about $2.
Next, Real TV, a small Tbilisi-based station known for being one of the more propagandistic supporters of the UNM government, was shut down due to “financial problems.” Around the same time, staff at the Russian-language public channel PIK, known for its uncritical reporting on the outgoing government, staged a silent broadcast aimed at the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) to protest the nonpayment of salaries, unpaid bills, and a lack of clarity about its future. The state-owned GPB, which was responsible for funding the PIK’s operations, paid the overdue salaries the day after the protests, but decided to shut the channel down five days later, citing the unsanctioned silent protest as the cause. PIK journalists assert that the decision was in fact linked to missing funds — in the amount of 2m GEL ($1.2m) — that had been allocated to keep the station operating. The termination of these smaller stations and the return of Imedi TV to Patarkatsishvili’s family, who agreed to finance it independently, lightened the UNM’s financial burden and gave it an opportunity to concentrate its resources on a new, leaner media structure that would better support it while in opposition.
The GPB has become a hotly contested battleground for the rival political forces. The new government immediately attempted to make drastic changes to the public broadcaster, which was known for its heavily pro-UNM bias. Ivanishvili initially wanted to merge it with his own TV9, a goal he later renounced due to criticism. In mid-November, the state cut the GPB’s budget by $10.8m and shortly afterward, its general director was replaced. The new director, Georgiy Baratashvili, was then fired by the supervisory board in March 2013 for dismissing GPB’s news director, allegedly for her support of the UNM. President Saakashvili nominates members to the board, and the majority are open supporters of his party. Concerns about a political tug-of-war over the broadcaster prompted Georgia’s Media Advocacy Coalition to submit a draft bill to parliament that would reduce political influence over the supervisory board.
Unlike Imedi TV, Rustavi 2 and MZE, a smaller pro-Saakashvili channel linked to Rustavi, remain under the ownership of UNM loyalists. However, the declared intentions of the two stations’ former owners to reclaim their rights caused some alarm. A few days after the elections, the founders of Rustavi 2, Jarji Akimidze and Davit Dvali, claimed that the station was forcefully taken from them in 2004, and together with Kibar Khalashi, who managed the station until it was taken from him in 2007, they announced plans to regain control. Even months before the elections, Vano Chkhartishvili, former owner of MZE, launched an effort to sue top-level UNM officials for forcing him to relinquish that station under pressure in 2005, and to demand return of ownership. These claims probably led the UNM’s leadership to call for an ownership reshuffle that would put more distance between the original owners and the present ones. Within two weeks after the elections, shares in both Rustavi 2 and MZE were bought and then resold for the same price. The current owner is reportedly a close friend of Saakashvili’s. Each sale to a new owner complicates efforts to identify legitimate ownership and reduces the chances that the channel could ever return to the hands of those who oppose the UNM.
Meanwhile, one new television station will be added to this consolidated group of pro-UNM media. On October 12, the broadcasting license of Sakartvelo TV, a channel devoted to action and military programming and viewed mostly in army barracks, was handed over to the pro-Saakashvili, libertarian magazine Tabula, which announced its intention to expand into the television medium. Tabula’s founder and editor-in-chief, Giga Bokeria, is the wife of the chief of the National Security Service and a staunch defender of Saakashvili’s policies. Trial broadcasts began in January. Whether the transformation of Tabula into a pro-UNM television station will benefit the party more than the smaller channels that were shut down in late 2012 remains to be seen. Perhaps Tabula has financial backers who are party loyalists and willing to pay for its development, or perhaps as a newly created station, it will be more efficient. In any case, the party’s behavior in recent months with regard to the media suggests that there must be some strategy behind the move.
Motive for Prejudice
On the other side of the fence, pro-GDM stations are expanding their reach and becoming further entrenched in their political bias. Although Imedi TV (under its new ownership) has not declared any official political affiliation, its history with the former regime gives it an obvious motive for prejudice, which it is beginning to show. Meanwhile, shortly after the elections, TV9 began terrestrial broadcasting via the radio frequency of Stereo Plus. Although the legality of the move is under question, it makes TV9 accessible to anyone with an antenna in Tbilisi — where one third of Georgia’s population resides; it was previously available only via cable and satellite. TV9 remains in the hands of Prime Minister Ivanishvili’s family, despite his publicly stated plans to relinquish his shares. Well before the elections, the station’s management set up an advisory board of mostly non-Georgians with the aim of ensuring an independent direction. But the board has so far refrained from intervening to check TV9’s clear political bias. At the end of November, Luba Eliashvili, the wife of GDM parliamentarian Shalva Shavgulidze, was appointed director of the station, casting further doubt on its supposed depoliticization. Civil society groups have urged Ivanshivili to entrust his shares to a foundation or private company in order to bolster the station’s editorial independence. Judging by the coverage of the protests outside the National Library on February 8, the station has not moved away from its partisan slant.
The recent shifts in the media landscape do not paint an optimistic picture for nonpartisan reporting in Georgia. The UNM appears to be cutting its losses and consolidating its resources for a sustained effort to fire up, rather than cool down, the ongoing battle for political influence in the media. In the current environment, pro-UNM/anti-GDM propaganda transmitted on Rustavi 2, MZE, and Tabula TV could play an important role in the party’s bid to restore its popularity, should the new government fail to fulfill its campaign promises fast enough to satisfy the public. Now that it is in power, the GDM has not demonstrated any genuine will to reduce the influence of politics on the media, a pattern so entrenched in Georgia that only strong, ethical leadership can halt it. Given the ongoing, unrelenting tensions between the two main political forces in the country, the battle for influence over the media is certain to intensify as October’s presidential election approaches and the UNM elaborates its efforts to return to public favor.
While the peaceful rotation of power that occurred this past October has been rightly lauded as a victory for democracy in Georgia, the country is still a long distance away from shedding its bad habits in the area of press freedom. Recent changes have increased media pluralism, but news sources remain highly polarized. Until the new government gets serious about setting a positive example by distancing itself from media ownership, supporting a competitive advertising market in which independent media may thrive, and encouraging high-quality, investigative journalism, Georgians will continue to struggle to find real information in a sea of political bias.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Image: Copyright © Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved.