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Rustavi 2 case: is Georgia’s media pluralism in peril?

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Georgian media landscape, “pluralist, but not yet independent, very polarized”, as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) puts it, was shaken up mid-July by the decision of the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to consider the legal proceedings by the Georgian courts compliant to fair trial standards. The station’s ownership reverted to the previous owner, who promptly got rid of the Director General.

Georgia ranks 60th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2019. RSF notes that “the outcome of the continuing dispute over ownership of the main national opposition TV channel, Rustavi 2, will therefore have a big impact”.

With the outcome is now clear, it still remains uncertain how this will affect the media freedom in the country.

Is Georgia’s media pluralism in peril?

Rustavi 2’s editorial policy, stridently critical of the government, still holds, but many expect that this is not going to last. How dramatic could be the change?

Marc Berhendt, who is familiar with Georgia’s media landscape since mid-1990s and now works at the US-based watchdog, Freedom House, thinks there is no danger to pluralism, but what Georgia’s media lacks is neutrality and objectivity. “The problem in Georgia is that people are conflating the idea of being a critical media outlet with being a credible one,” says Berhendt.

Indeed, the outgoing director-general of Rustavi 2 TV, Nika Gvaramia, has served as nation’s education minister and deputy prosecutor general under ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili. His visceral criticism of the current authorities was more than matched by the animus that the ruling party officials carry towards Rustavi 2.

Georgian media watchdogs worry, that this political dynamic feeds into and influences pressure against Rustavi 2. ECtHR has previously taken this view as credible, when it issued an order prohibiting the change of ownership until its final decision. But in its latest ruling, the judges considered the freedom of speech considerations inadmissible in the case, focusing explicitly on the matter of due process. This does little to alleviate media watcher’s concerns.

Nata Dzvelishvili, executive director of the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics tells Civil Georgia that “seeing this process related to Rustavi 2 TV in a wider perspective, one can conclude that if there is a political interest, the government is ready to undertake any measures to achieve its goal”.

Dzvelishvili thinks that in an ownership dispute that has way too many actors and layers, the ruling party seems to pick and choose according to the political expedience, which aspects to fast-track. “ [The original] TV founders’ [meaning Dvali and Akimidze] appeal to the prosecutor’s office has been shelved for years now… the public does not know yet whether they were forced to sell shares… In the meantime, Kibar Khalvashi’s [who acquired ownership] appeal was fast-tracked through all three instances of the court,”  Dzvelishvili tells Civil Georgia.

There are concerns that the government will use the legitimacy that ECtHR decision seems to have given the Georgian legal system, to shield itself from accusations in any further, potential, politically motivated assaults on Rustavi 2 or any other media it might undertake.

Moving on: life after Rustavi 2

“The professional journalists [of Rustavi 2 TV] will either adapt to new circumstances or find new outlets and or find other options, and certainly I believe their voice will still get out to the people,” Behrendt told the Voice of America.

Indeed, Gvaramia has already announced his decision to create the new channel. In parallel, another company, Studio “Formula Creative” which aired several high-profile programs on Rustavi 2 has confirmed to be in talks with investors to launch an independent channel, with political and news programming.

Tamar Kintsurashvili of Media Development Foundation (MDF), another local watchdog, believes there still would be a significant disbalance in favor of the ruling party, since it will take time for the newly formed opposition TV channels to create a credible counterbalance. After all, Rustavi 2 remains the country’s most watched channel.

Kintsurashvili recalls that ahead of 2012 elections, when Georgia’s first peaceful democratic transition of power took place, the ruling party dominated the two main national channels. “The need of introducing must-carry policy [an obligation on cable channels to broadcast smaller channels] has surfaced since the smaller TV stations, critical to government, like Maestro, Channel 9, Kavkasia did not enjoy as much viewership as Rustavi 2 or Imedi TV, the two largest media players.”

She names few practical obstacles that a TV channel might face: obtaining a broadcasting license takes time; one needs to secure financing; it also takes time to establish the brand recognition and a habit among Georgian viewers. “This is not an easy path to follow”, Kintsurashvili says. Neither it is quick especially as the 2020 parliamentary elections are fast approaching.

William Dunbar, journalist and long time Georgia-watcher says “Georgians are sophisticated media consumers […] if and when Rustavi 2 begins to toe the government’s line they will look elsewhere for news. That happened with Imedi, Maestro, and to Rustavi 2 itself after 2012.”

Nata Dzvelishvili is also optimistic, “modern technologies make silencing the media and hampering the truth from spreading a difficult task”. She believes Georgia’s media market would be more diverse and robust by 2020.

She agrees with Behrendt that “ the extent to which media outlets will become [more] impartial or whether the quality of reporting/coverage improves, is a whole different matter”.

All eyes online?

Research shows that Georgians are more and more likely to seek their news online – through multiplying online news platforms, but also increasingly through social media, where Facebook is dominating, with 74% market share. Recent studies have also shown increased use of the pro-governmental “trolls” to discredit the protesters. A conjunction between limited TV pluralism – at least in the short run – and increasingly sophisticated tools of online repression is worrying, thinks Dunbar, “perhaps more important is what will happen online, with the Government’s troll army fully battlefield ready and no one on TV to expose them”, he says.

Kintsurashvili believes the government cannot fully suppress social media. She notes however, that “[government] mobilizes trolls in social platforms, artificially creates public opinion, creates the groups and sows divisions there, or consolidates opinions depending what serves its interests in that very moment”.  

Even if social media remains relatively free from the state intervention, it can not substitute traditional media. “Television remains the main source of information in the country, social media cannot match its influence”, Kintsurashvili says.

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