Friendly Brother is Watching You? Georgia’s New, State-sponsored Media Critic

Not so long ago, Georgia’s Facebooking masses were served a short promotional video in which familiar faces took turns enunciating basic tenets of ethical journalism: accuracy, impartiality, accountability, editorial independence… Kakhi Bekauri, who chairs Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC), wraps up saying: “these are the fundamental principles based on which we launch this platform”.

GNCC is a regulatory authority, charged with distributing electronic communication protocols and managing broadcasting frequencies. It has five members selected for six-year terms based on open, merit-based application, and approval by the Parliament and the executive. While acting as the official regulator, it is accountable to the Parliament and is funded through the portion of broadcasting license fees, rather than from the state budget.

On December 23 GNCC unveiled an online platform – “Media Critic” – which, it says, will serve to scrutinize and guide Georgia’s media content. Some say in doing so the agency overstepped its competencies.

On the Media Critic home page one article grabs reader’s attention. “Do we need media criticism?” – asks Zviad Avaliani, platform’s contributor, and seeks an answer to his own question by pointing accusatory finger at civil society outfits. Georgian society mistrusts media, he argues, as it often falls prey to partisan interests. International backdrop – rampant fake news and disinformation – adds to the predicament. In this game, Avaliani argues, civil society organizations are partial, they are bankrolled from the foreign capitals, and thus have their own agenda which is out of touch with popular needs. All things considered, concludes Avaliani, the public craves unbiased analysis, reflecting true public opinion.

GNCC insists, that even though it is a patron of the platform, it intends to do some independent watchdogging. This it can do, the argument goes, since the Commission, while state-governed, is not directly subsidized by it. So, the critique comes with no financial strings attached.

Giorgi Mgeladze, director of the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, journalists’ self-regulatory union, is not convinced. He says there is a strong conflict of interest in regulator taking up the role of a critic. On top of it, despite much-vaunted “independence”, he casts doubts on political impartiality of the body, too.

“Let’s bear in mind that GNCC is headed by a figure with proven ties to Bidzina Ivanishvili [benefactor and chair of the ruling “Georgian Dream” party],” Mgeladze says. Having read all of the Media Critic’s articles published to date, he says “the bias is evident.”

According to Mgeladze, the criticism is clearly aimed at the likes of “Mtavari Arkhi TV”, a scathing – if partisan – voice of criticism against Ivanishvili and turns a blind eye to the likes of “Imedi TV” – a pro-governmental mouthpiece.

Censors in media educators’ guise?

GNCC’s expansion into media critique is based on December 2017 amendments to the Georgian Law on Broadcasting, which granted GNNC new powers to promote media literacy. The officials refer to German experience, where the state authority (die Medienanstalten) has a mandate to instill a sense of critical thinking in media consumers.

Tamar Kintsurashvili, who manages “Media Development Foundation” (MDF), a disinformation watchdog, says GNCC is twisting the facts. “In Germany media literacy programs are mainly directed at users – common citizens. The state does not interfere in professional journalists’ business”, she tells us. In other words, while the German body disseminates general principles and let’s citizens make up their mind about specific media outlets, or reports, the GNCC takes the opposite approach – naming and shaming the outlets and reports its experts seem to dislike.

Kintsurashvili thinks the selection of experts is odd, too, pointing out that Zviad Avaliani, is employed by “Obiektivi TV”, a media outlet that has been noted to promote hate speech and dabble in anti-western propaganda.

Ia Antadze, veteran journalist currently at the Georgian Public Broadcaster, who features as one of Media Critic’s experts, sees no specter of public censorship. “This platform is just an additional means of self-regulation,” she says and thus, if it fails to convince journalists of its value, it would only harm itself.

Winds of [unfavorable] change

Indeed, perhaps there is nothing to it and GNCC’s new initiative is at worst an ill-conceived attempt at improving Georgia’s media scene. But media professionals are spooked not by Media Critic per se, but the general context of, in which the ruling Georgian Dream seems to take a harder line on media freedom. More so, since the upcoming Parliamentary elections in autumn are likely to be bitterly – and dirtily – contested.

Mgeladze calls attention to the government’s consistent efforts “to alter the media regulation”, and particularly points to a draft law, which would see GNCC’s powers augmented during the complaints mechanism.

The current law On Broadcasting (Articles 14 and 591) leaves complaints filed against the media to be adjudicated by self-regulation body. If the ethical norms and professional standards set forth in the Code of Conduct are allegedly violated – for example, by hate speech – the GNCC has no say. The 2004 Georgian law on Freedom of Speech and Expression says a person can sue a journalist/owner of the media for defamation, but the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff.

If the proposed amendments are approved, GNCC will be authorized to review decisions by self-regulatory entities and impose fines for any breach of law, while non-payment of fines might lead to suspension of license.

Last June a coalition of Georgian CSOs published a statement slamming the bill for “limiting the scope of self-regulation and increasing the risk of state censorship.” In an explanatory note, GNCC denied allegations, saying the move was indispensable for the implementation of the EU Association Agreement, as EU’s 2010 directive says effective state control must complement self-regulatory regimes.

All eyes on us? They watching us

Tamar Kintsurashvili agrees that hate speech is indeed penalized by certain European countries, but says the circumstances differ – elsewhere in Europe, “the courts are not bound by the ruling party politicians’ whims” she argues, saying that the recent performance of the Georgian judicial system makes it difficult to give it the benefit of the doubt.

According to the last annual report by “Reporters without Borders”, Georgian media landscape has become “pluralist but not yet independent.” Antadze partly shares this assessment: “Just turn on a TV set and zap through the Georgian channels – you find such a variety.” Kintsurashvili accepts that, compared to 2012, the broadcasters are aplenty. However, she insists, “government will use any means at its disposal to clamp down on the media that refuses to tread the path” ahead of the polls.

While the controversial legal amendments are, for now, shelved, media freedom will clearly remain in the limelight as the country nears the watershed elections of 2020.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian) Русский (Russian)