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“Georgian Government Controls Six TV Stations”

Nona Suvariani, Tbilisi

“Are you from Security Department?”… is a rhetorical question that members of the various opposition parties are now asking to the journalists from Georgian TV Stations. Journalists are often blamed for protecting the interests of the government and being biased, using media as a cover to collect information and push not-too-hidden agendas. This begs the question as to why members of the opposition raise issues that perhaps those working for TV Companies are being supervised from the governmental structures? Who is the real supervisor of Georgia based TV Stations? And more generally, does Georgia have impartial TV Companies or not?

One of the oppositionist leaders Gogoa Khaindrava, who has been especially outspoken towards “Rustavi 2” and its staff, shares his views about the existence of an independent media in Georgia earlier today.

Goga Khaindrava: “Rustavi 2” is the operative service for the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs and Vano Merabishvili, the head of the spy service. Their main function is to discredit and all that do not fall into conventional thinking as what the government thinks should be the profession of a journalist.  I cannot make such a statement about all journalists but can say with a degree of certainty that there are some concrete people involved in circumventing a free press.   “Rustavi 2” does not have anything to do with democracy, journalism and independent media whatsoever.” 

Khaindrava speaks about other TV Companies that work in Georgia. He said that none of the other TV Stations can be very proud of their impartiality and track record.

“TV Company “Mze” belongs directly to the National Movement and it only natural that they support and propagate political ideas of the leading political party in Georgia. It is not even necessary to make any statement about TV Company “Sakartvelo” which effectively belongs to the Defense Ministry. If the TV Company covered only military thematic it would not have been a problem. However, this is a platform for many things. Do you remember all those discrediting documentary films that were shown on that TV Company?

He continues the list of less than professional media outlets. “As for TV Company “Adjara”- it is undisputedly controlled from the government and there is no doubt.  The same can be said about “Alania TV”. The only independent TV Station that still remains is “Kavcasia”. There are positive on-going processes in Georgian Public Broadcasting, which was brought about by public outrange how it was used as a political mouthpiece by the government. I hope it will be finally established as a true public television station and not the TV Station that will be controlled by the government and its agenda.”

Much the same attitude is expressed by politicians and laypersons alike towards a cross-section of Georgian TV Stations, which opponents frequently describe as instruments used to annoy and suppress real political debate. Moreover, the same attitude towards TV stations is common among professional journalists. They clearly see to what extent that TV is used in shaping public opinion and inhabiting media freedom. TV Companies may not openly announce their interests but it is nevertheless well-understood by all, even to outside observers.

Journalist Ia Antadze said that there is no TV Station working in Georgia that is not effectively under the influence and works actively to protect editorial and media independence. Media owners are in one of two camps: they either are in opposition to the government or are members of the ruling government. 

Ia Antadze compares the situation that now exists in Georgian to the situation that existed before “Rose Revolution” in 2003 when the government opposed the various boards of TV Companies, particularly “Rustavi 2”. It was because the government was so opposed to this station that its rating went sky high. It was not only ratings that matter in comparison to other stations but  the demonstration of how TV shaped public opinion in Georgia that made a difference in the political direction of the country as a whole.  The situation resembled a triangle-government that standing on the top angle of the triangle, the owner and journalist of the TV Company were standing on the lower angles. The lower two created a winning team in opposition to what was rotten at top. However, times do change and now the shoe is on the other foot.

“After the Rose Revolution the triangle flipped around and the government and media-owners are now suppressing journalists. These are really unprotected professionals as they are too weak to stand up to such a power. They are fearful of losing their jobs. They have their labor contracts but these are not really effective in protecting their actual rights. The government has the all the power to make sweeping human resources changes, not only impacting their employment  contracts but can boards of directors as well.

It is clear that government managed to change the board of almost all TV Companies. The new boards were created from governmental officials or those persons closely connected.  The only person who was not involved in this triangle was Badri Patarkatsivhili with his “Imedi TV”. This was a station and a man who actually stood up in opposing the government.”

Journalist Tamar Chikovani complained about the worsened situation in the freedom of expression in Georgia as early as in 2004. “When Imedi was closed down after November events it became evident for everybody that TV Companies in Georgia are not independent. Two more TV Channels, “Kavkasia” in Tbilisi and “Channel 25” in Adjara Autonomous Republic were closed down.”

Generally, there is a very interesting tendency regarding TV Companies in Georgia. Politicians think that TV Stations should express the interests of the public and not some particular political groups. The scandal about the Public Broadcasting is a good example for it. The fact that Public Broadcasting was not impartial TV Company was proved by the documentary on the events of November 7, November to November, which was shown on the PB. Although it was prepared by governmental structures, it was introduced to the society as a piece of professional journalistic work. Later on Tamar Kintsurashvili, the former Director General of the PB stated it had been mistake to show the documentary. “I have also made a mistake to let them show the film without seeing it myself,” said Kintsurashvili.

However, Misha Basiladze, the head of the Department for Documentary Films, said in his conversation with the Human Rights Center that the board of the PB decided to show the documentary and he personally was not in the position to have made such a decision on his own.

Ia Antadze pointed out that the Public Broadcasting could not be an independent station under such circumstances. When the Board of Trustees of the PB was elected by the parliament the government staffed with the people from their inner circle. Tamar Kintsurashvili was the chairperson of the board who had worked in the Liberty Institute, a US funded NGO before the Rose Revolution. It can be concluded that she particularly part of the team that has been running the Georgia.

“The fact that the PB was fully controlled by the government was well-documented during the elections and its aftermath. When people discovered double ballot papers many questions started to be asked by greater society. Everybody was interested in knowing whether Saakashvili had crossed the 50 % barrier or not, and whether or not there would be a runoff election or not?  GPB immediately decided to hold a talk show on the issue. However, in spite of its plans the program was soon cancelled. It would have been a public service for such a program, as stipulated it the Charter of GPB, which stipulated that the stations is suppose to be responsive to the needs of society, and to not be controlled by a governmental approved agenda and minders.

It is understandable why the talk show was soon cancelled, and this was most unfortunate. It would have been great to provide the public with information at the time there was a dearth of real and accurate information - society was faced with an informational vacuum, which can only be explained by political expediency on the part of government and public TV. By the way, as it now stands, when the PB has interim director it works nearly perfect. Many stakeholders, including the public, are well aware of the difference between now and before.”

“Placing the blame is a well-experienced and proved method used by the Georgian government in dealing with its foes. Already a “war of denouncements has started in Georgia”, said Badri Patarkatsishvili when he personally became one of the first casualties to TV hired guns. One instance is how his appeal to the journalists from the Imedi TV was shown by “Rustavi 2”. Giorgi Targamadze, a former journalist and anchor for “Imedi” TV Company recalls how the journalists from Imedi did not know anything about that recording at all.

“I learned about the recording only when I found out that it was aired by “Rustavi 2”. I was left unaware of this information beforehand. I cannot understand how “Rustavi 2” learned about the appeal in the first place. Although the recording was not coded and it was not problem to get hold of it, it did not need a deep undercover covert specialist. Everybody who had suitable apparatus could have received the recording on their own. Another point is how ethical and legal is such behavior in the first. They should have agreed it at least with the Press Service Office of Badri Patarkatsishvili, as to whether it would be aired or not.”

Last spring one of the NGOs carried out a survey to estimate how political issues were highlighted by Georgian TV Companies. The results were the following: the most balanced information was provided by “Kronika”, the news program of the “Imedi TV” and the GPB was ranked in the last place. Ia Antadze also took part in this survey.

In spring of last year the GPB, “Imedi TV” and “Rustavi 2” had exclusive materials. The PB had 109 exclusive on government and 7 on opposition-thus on the background of similar balance we might speak about the problem of being biased or not. The number of respondents from government was two times greater than those representing the opposition. The nearly same situation was determined about “Rustavi 2”. As for “Kronika”, it had a few more respondents from opposition parties. It is natural because the opposition is divided in various segments and when the society is curious about the opinion of the opposition on some particular issue, as one person cannot express the opinion of all camps of the opposition. Nonetheless, it appears that only one person can announce the stance of the government.”

It is often discussed that TV Companies are managed by the government in Georgia. Journalist Badri Koplatadze does not agree with such an opinion and he considers that the TV Companies work independently. The government does not censure them at all. He considers that the problem exists only in inner-editorial politics, which means in so many words that the owners act deliberately in their narrow agendas.

“There are no TV Stations in Georgia that are funded from the government. The only one is the “Adjara TV” that is still a state owned and is not a public legal entity. Remaining media sources are separated from the government, either on a formal or legal basis. GPB is established according to that principle as the legislation demands; it is not funded from the state budget.”

He said that in Georgia people wrongly understand what an “Independent Media” actual means and what is “impartiality” in journalism. It is always clear that all these factors should exist within each media outlook. “In fact the freedom of media means the freedom of various types and outlets, and this means that a person is free to receive different viewpoints from different media outlets – to pick and chose.  Take in America for example, where there are three main channels in America. FOX has clear conservative direction; that means they support Republicans. CNN is oriented towards Democratic Part. Regardless of the programming direction it does not mean that Americans are hindered in any way from receiving their news from various sources as to what is going on.

The same situation holds true for Georgia too. “Kavkasia” is obviously a station belonging or catering to opposition parties. We can see only representatives of the opposition parties on their broadcasts.  The bottom line is that people are free to either receive information from Kavkasia or some other channel. “Rustavi 2” is blamed of being a governmental TV station. However, both oppositionists and governmental side participate in their programs. They claim that GPB is biased.  However I can state that it is the most balanced TV Station in Georgia. All in all, both government and opposition have different opinion about the issue. Finally those three Georgian TV Companies create an independent media in the country because of their diversity of views.  Regardless, in spite of the facts, I can accept many different opinions about the same media.”

The principle, Badri Koplatadze has discussed is quite acceptable for Tamar Chikovani; However she said that people do not have to enjoy the same situation in Georgia.

“We are told that we can hear opposition opinion only from “Kavkasia”. Initially, we should state that “Kavkasia” is broadcasted only in Tbilisi. The second problem that I should say once more despite my empathy to Dato Akubardia the director of the Kavkasia, his TV Station does need some improvement. It is boring to see one and the same person in all programs that is shown on their TV.  That means, Kavkasia is but an embryo of a TV Station that will develop one of these days.”

“Besides that only “Kavkasia” cannot compete with the “Rustavi 2”, “Public Broadcasting, “Mze”, “Alania”, “Adjara” and “Sakartvelo”. Thus, one “Kavkasia” is opposed with six TV Companies that are now fully controlled by the government. The fact that opposition leaders are on hunger-strike in the central avenue of the capital should not come down on the list as the fifth news item in a news program.”

The program led by Tamar Chikovani was closed down for unidentified reasons; it was broadcasted by TV Company “Maestro”. The TV Company needed to change the license and it had to change its profile from entertainment into a more general one. In this case the dispute was not going over the frequency at all. However, it is clear that the process was so much drawn out and the situation became so complicated that the TV Company nearly was shut down as a result.

Independence of the TV Company does not mean that it is impartial; “Kavkasia” is a good example for that. Although, very often it reveals such topics that are avoided by other TV Stations. However, one theme is very clear, that a negative attitude towards the government is easily observed in all their programming.

Ia Antadze: “Independence does not mean that the TV Station serves the public interest. TV Company Imedi was independent too but proved to be very aggressive and this stemmed from their programs. Although “Imedi TV” revealed the real situation in the country, there were such TV programs like talk-shows and weekly TV journal “Droeba”.  The situation is much the same about “Kavkasia”. All kinds of people and the broad range of  political parties are not represented in their programs. It is a private company and the owner operates it according to his own desires, which is correct way of working.  The problem is that I cannot see enough sense of responsibility in the TV Company to affirm that this station impartially tells the truth.

“The situation is especially grave at the regional level with TV companies. They have signed various contracts with local governments. The regional TV stations cover the activities of the local governments for the most part. There are many companies with serious financial problems and it is reflected in how their work.  How is it then possible to say that they are really independent when they have to depend on government advertising or special interests to survive?”

The current situation in Georgian TV Companies reminds Tamar Chikovani the similar situation about Russian TV Companies. Badri Patarkatsishvili was often blamed for having a private TV Station. However, in this case we knew who was the owner and we cannot say the same about the TV Companies “Rustavi 2” and “Mze”. In the past several oligarchs had their own TV Stations in Russia. There was a time when there was freedom of expression and pluralism, and it was really protected; I mean Patarkatsishvili, and Boris Berezovski. However, when the government finally managed to take control over those TV Stations everybody soon witnessed how things changed, for example, “NTV” started working in Russia. The same happened with “Rustavi 2”. It is a shame that we in Georgian cannot learn anything from the Russian experience, and to not make the same mistakes.  Today, six acting Georgian TV Companies express the position of the Georgian Government.”

Tamar Chikovani thinks the more oligarchs that will be in Georgia the more TV stations we will have and it will be perfect. It is natural that the TV Stations will carry the position of their owners but if there are several TV Companies in the country the society will be able to hear various opinions about similar issues.

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