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Have you forgotten what pressure on media means?

May 20, 2004

Have You Forgotten What pressure on Media Means?

Currently, national and international NGOs are observing the process of democratization in Georgia. In an open letter to the Georgian government, FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights) expresses its concern about recent restrictions on the freedom of speech, such as the cancellation of different TV programs, the discontinuation of several publications, and the closing of TV Companies without any logical explanation. The government has a different opinion of the issue.  The article highlighting Zurab Zhvania's case against the "Independent Newspaper" caused cevere reaction among the governmental representatives.

Recently, we interviewed Giga Bokeria, the Deputy Director of the Legal Committee of Parliament. Bokeria claims that the political will of the Georgian government is to provide guarantees of civil freedoms, and that freedom of speech is considered to be a priority. According to him, he cannot find a place in State Television for such an “odious person as Nato Oniani”. He also says that “Freedom of Speech involves the owner’s right to decide who to have on the air”.

In article 19, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. In addition, article 10 of the European Convention states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”. Unfortunately, as time passes, the fact that the government is exercising pressure on the media is becoming more obvious. The example of Television of Adjara can be served as a proof.

I cannot say that there is no pressure on media, as political figures of the local government outside Tbilisi were trying to exercise this kind of pressure.  I would not be telling the truth if I said there is no pressure, but the political will of the Geogrian governemnet is to provide guarantees of civil freedoms, freedom of speech being one of the priorities. This is a clear position that the Georgian government has adopted, including both the legislature and the executive authority and president of Georgia.

- Do you consider the case of Zhurab Zhvania (prime-minister) agianst „Independent Newspaper” as a resriction of freedom of speech?

The publication in “Independent Newspaper” concerning Zurab Zhvania’s activity would be considered as libel in the USA because in the article there were facts mentioned (and not just opinions) without naming any sources. Moreover, they did not even make any attempts to check the facts through any sources. From a legal standpoint, by our legislation or the one we are going to adopt soon, or by European legislation, the newspaper and the journalist would lose this kind of case everywhere. For me, the motivation for the penalty was disputable. To my mind, a very important standard is reckless disregard or a purposeful wish to lie. I think that the applicant did not show this, though he had the opportunity to do so.  The suit consisted of several episodes, not only the ones I just talked about. But as for the main case, there is no doubt that it was directly mentioned in the law suit that a man demanded a bribe from another man, without naming the source of the information or checking it. My position is that I’m against bringing cases to court against journalists, press, or certain people, but there may be some exceptions when the danger of violation exists. My personal position does not mean that the prime minister did not have right to bring the case to court. I just think that we should support the establishment of the mechanisms of self-regulation as much as possible, which is more effective for the interests of society as well as for the development of the press. Attempts have been made to arbitrate these kinds of cases in the press council, which works with self-regulation mechanisms. Western experience reveals that such kind of regulation is much more effective for raising the journalistic standards of the defense of the reputation of public figures, without endangering freedom of speech. I am for that. Legislation must provide guarantees of freedom of speech and press. The journalistic standards must be very strict. There is much difficulty regarding this in Georgian journalism. I have always considered that ethics, professionalism, and morality are characteristics of free people. When the media is in serious danger, there is no use in speaking about it. This is not the case in Georgia now, and the legislation will make these issues clear in the near future. It is an obligation of the media to show more respect to the audience and to their own profession. Editorial policy should be defined by them, but the standards are the business of the society as well. I emphasize that this must be done lawfully and not by means of pressure and force. The media is not just an average business, it is in direct connection with the interests of society. This is taken into consideration all over the world.

- The Independent Newspaper asked for mediation on calling Lezhava and Curtis as witnesses at the trial and the court was provided with their contact information, though according to Tamuna Lefsveridze (the editor of the newspaper), the court did not satisfy the application, because they did not manage to present  the witnesses in court.

It was not a serious legislative approach, as there was no source indicated in the article and the court would never satisfy their claims. They did not even make an attempt to find the sources. They put their reputation on stake and blamed one person for demanding a bribe from the other. It is violation not only according to journalistic standards but also to legislation. I’m very sorry that the editor fails to acknowledge her mistake.

Conducting an investigation is not the business of the court. According to the standards of our legislation, the burden of proof is divided, and is mainly on the defendant. We think that the legislation must be changed and the burden of proof should be completely on the plaintiff, to  demonstrate the fact that damage has been inflicted on him and that obviously false facts have been spread. A criminal action took place because unsubstantiated “facts” have been spread purposefully. In this case, it was not a mistake, since you can’t punish a journalist for a mistake, but a case of criminal negligence. It would not be difficult for the applicant to prove it, even under the new legislation, but the applicant would have to demonstrate that he had been damaged. So, we cannot say that the court committed any violation except on the part of the penalty. In my mind, the motivation of the applicant was not enough to impose penalty on the respondent. The essential thing is that the legislation must be extremely clear and in line with high standards. On the other hand, the society and the press should attempt to raise journalistic standards.

- Zurab Zvania applied to the court as a private body. Do you think that he made use of his high position for his own interests when he got the cassette with the record of the advertisement of The Independent Newspaper based on a demand sent from the State Chancellery?

The State Chancellery is a state institution, the Prime Minister’s specific arena, and has the right to know about serious accusations against him. So, the Prime Minister made use of the information in the court because the State Chancellery got that information out of inquiries. This information was public. The case will be difficult for the defendant, who violated Georgian legislation.

- Shouldn’t we consider the fact that Zhvania names his position everywhere in his lawsuit  as an indication of pressure? 

He was right to indicate his position. No one could seriously believe that by naming his position he wanted to exercise pressure on the court. Everybody knows that Zhvania is the Prime Minister. Besides, the accusations made against him are connected with his position as a Prime Minister. 

- How can you explain the cancellation of various publications, television programs, and the closing of TV stations?

The editorial independence of a TV company is a part of freedom of speech. The way you want to interpret the problem is legally incorrect and based on partial approach, because the editorial position or political sympathy of the owner of a certain TV company is only his business. We can only speak about pressure when we have evidence. 

- What can you say about cancellation of the TV show “Tema” (The topic)?

Mr. Patarkatsishvili or any person appointed by him in this TV Company has a full right to like or dislike some of the shows because of taste, political sympathy, or antipathy. We, the government, do not have any right to interfere and demand from Mr. Patarkatsishvili to restore Gomiashvili’s “Tema”. This would be funny. So, if Mr. Patarkatsishvili did not like Gomiashvili’s criticism of some issues he is the only person who can decide to cancel the show. Freedom of speech involves the owner’s right to make a decision on whom to have or not to have on air.

As for the “The 9th Channel”, we did not have any kind of political problem with this channel. We cannot  say we had no political disagreements with other channels such as “Iberia” and “Caucasia” or "Adjara", but they are still functioning. So, why the owner made such a decision, what commercial grounds he had for that, should not be a reason to blame the government. If anybody has some proof of pressure, of course, that would be another matter.

- What explanation could you give us for the fact that this channel won the right to expand broadcasting to the whole territory of Georgia, but soon after this stopped functioning? 

Any speculations on the issue by me would not be serious. The only reason I can think of is that the political regime has changed in Georgia, which might be a factor for the owner depending on what interests he has. Maybe during Shevardnadze’s period he thought it vital to have a channel that would meet his demands at the time. Now that the regime has changed, he might have different interests. Channels which operate with a complete violation of journalistic standards and are very critical to the government are still on the air, and we do not have the capability to restrict them except for situations when obvious violations take place. We have not had such a reason so far. I do not know any publication having political problems at present. “The Axali Epoka” is a literary magazine and has the right to do whatever it wants. As for the investigation that is being conducted regarding Omega Group, it does not have anything to do with “The Axali Epoka”. It is connected with organized crime and contraband. So this is in no way linked with freedom of speech. Such an interpretation is absurd.

Regarding talk shows, I can say that they have not been cancelled. They are still on air with the same or even more skeptical and critical format. There are debates on TV Companies “Mze” and “Rustavi 2”. How certain TV Company develop certain programmes and shows and in what format does not have anything to do with freedom of speech or the obligation of the government. I think that a misunderstanding was caused by the fact that Rustavi 2 was very critical of the precious government, as was the majority of the society. Rustavi 2, which was and still is a leader in Georgian media, is more balanced in its perspective. This created an illusion in some parts of the society that it is connected with freedom of speech. Rustavi 2, as well other legitimate television stations or journalists, cannot be as critical of the current government as they were of the precious one. Today, the government is elected by the people and enjoys a vast mandate. It is logical that the attitude towards the government has changed. I suppose that the first issue to be discussed at the parliamentary session will be the law on freedom of speech, which will prevent any danger of legal pressure on the media as well as on any particular person. I think that this project will provide much better guarantees than the legislation of most European countries, because this draft law is based on the decisions made by the Supreme Courts in the USA, which appreciates individual freedoms better than other countries. We are taking the same path.

- Nato Oniani’s show, according to her, was cancelled by the government and Nino Burjanadze stated that she welcomed the cancellation.

That is quite a different situation. The state channel in Shevradnadze’s times represented the body of propaganda of political leaders and did this with the money of the political contributors. Now, this channel should be changed into civil society forum, which should be separated from political leadership. It should represent the political will of the population, based on an editorial policy worked out by the supervisory council as is done with the BBC in England. I not only did not like this show, but I think that such shows should not be funded by our tax dollars. I think that in the state channel there is no place for such odious figures as Nato Oniani. This is not just my opinion. Still, I emphasize that currently, the president appoints the leader of the state channel, and this should not be so any more. We will soon adopt a new law, and have discussions about establishing public broadcasting.  I hope that at least for autumn we will have some changes, and the Supervisory Council will already be established. Naturally, this will be appointed by the government, but will not have direct political links with it. The Council will be responsible for the editorial policy, though the policy will be defined by the law. Public broadcasting stations are established because there are some topics which are not profitable in the commercial sense, but are necessary for society, and society is ready to pay for their existence.

- If you cannot see the problem in all of these examples, then what exactly would you consider to be pressure from the government on freedom of speech?

I’m sorry that you have forgotten what pressure means. This is what happened to Rustavi 2 when people rushed into their building. That is the only real means of pressure.

- Can you please explain to us how the  law regulates the libel issue?

The current legislation leaves too many possibilities for the interpretations by the courts in situations when there is a libel suit, especially against public figures. We believe that legislation should set higher standards for public figures if they want to bring libel lawsuits. It would be more difficult for public figures to protest their expressions even if factual. Legitimate facts about public figures should never be subject to prosecution for libel.

- Is the current law specific, or rather vague?

Everything is specific. A new law has passed the experimental council, and will undergo some changes before being enacted. It was created based on the similar laws in the USA and the EU. I identify more closely with the USA, which considers freedom of expression as among the most valuable of freedoms.