On November 19, the Director General and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) met the Speaker of the Parliament and the ruling party Chair in a last-ditch effort to modify the proposed change in GPB funding scheme, which they fear, would undermine the Broadcaster’s independence.
What is happening?
On November 15, the Georgian Parliament adopted a draft law on amendments to the Law on Public Service Broadcasting in the first reading, which proposes to change how the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) is funded.
What is the change?
Currently, the Law on Broadcasting stipulates that GPB has to get at least 0.14% of GDP. It does not have to justify that budget. If passed, the amendment law would have MPs approve the GBP budget annually.
Why is this a problem?
Currently, the GPB budget is tied to the GDP level, which is an objective figure. The volume of the annual budget is thus less dependent on partisan bickering in the parliament. GBP says that with the change, the Board would have to justify the budget levels annually, and MPs would have to debate and decide what funding levels are appropriate. The concern is that subjecting the annual budget to partisan compromise may erode the broadcaster’s independence and ability to have an autonomous editorial policy.
Who supports the change?
The ruling party submitted the draft, but it was endorsed both by the majority and the opposition.
The Explanatory Note to the amendment reads:
“After the enactment of the law, the funding of the Broadcaster will not be automatically linked to the macro parameters of the country.”
The amended provision of the draft law reads:
“The budget of the Public Broadcaster may not be less than the corresponding volume of the previous year within the limits provided by the article on the economic classification of expenses. In addition, the reduction of the amount of funding for the Public Broadcaster in relation to the previous year shall be possible only with the consent of the Board of Directors of the Public Broadcaster.”
What do the initiators of change say?
Why is the current funding rule wrong?
The Explanatory Note says the change is necessary because “the current funding method no longer corresponds to today’s reality.” This is a shorthand to say that when the economy grows fast, the current formula makes the funding levels go through the roof.
The note shows that the GPB funding was GEL 69.6 million in 2021 and grew to GEL 110.3 million in 2024. This 160% increase, according to the note, “was not conditioned by the real needs” of the Broadcaster. It adds: “The budget of any independent organization must usually be determined by considering its specific needs, goals, and functions.”
Why the suggested change is a good idea?
The Explanatory Note says the new rule will keep the GBP budget growing at approximately GEL 10 million annually in 2024-2027. They argue the need to justify the expenses will make the institution more accountable, just like any other state agency. And since the decrease in funding levels will only be possible with the consent of the Board of Trustees, the initiators of the draft say the financial and editorial independence of the GPB would be safeguarded. In addition, the Note says the change would help save public money.
Who was consulted?
According to the Explanatory, the initiators did not consult anyone: no government agencies, non-governmental organizations, international organizations or institutions, or experts were consulted, nor the working groups were held while drafting the law.
What do the opponents say?
On November 16, managers of the Public Broadcasters gathered in the TV show “Gadatskvetileba” [decision] to speak about the threat to their independence that they think the new draft poses. They said the initiators of the draft were invited but chose not to show up. Their arguments areas follows:
- The Public Broadcaster should not be required to justify and defend its funding levels.
“If it [GPB] becomes a typical budgetary organization, and I mean if it needs approval of funds from any government body, it is no longer the Public Broadcaster.”Giorgi Gvimradze, GBP representative
- None of the EU’s 64 public broadcasters in 47 countries are required to claim their funding.
“If none of the European broadcasters have such rule] why should we have it? It is unclear, especially when the European and Georgian legislators are getting closer and our path to the European Union is obvious. It is concerning that an attempt to intervene in the editorial policy is becoming very clear and visible, because the Public Broadcaster can not defend its editorial policy while asking the Parliament for funds every year.”Tinatin Berdzenishvili, Director General of the Public Broadcaster
Representatives of the GPB especially worry that no public consultation on the draft has been held so far, and apparently, none is planned. They say the mechanism of allocating funds is left quite vague by the draft law, which leaves room for political manipulation.
The chairman of the Board says, “GBP is not a financially greedy institution” and notes that the draft law also leaves room for uncontrolled growth in funding, saying, “as long as [GPB] is tied to some [government] body, that body may give you a lot of money, but that will also be bad because whoever gives [funds] it also determines the editorial policy.”
Editorial independence is GBPs primary concern. If the law is interpreted in a way that GBP has to justify expenses for, say, a particular TV show or program, the broadcaster will be forced to follow the money, they argue.
Europe’s leading alliance of Public Service Media, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), expressed its “utmost concern” about the proposal in a letter to the Speaker of the Parliament, Shalva Papuashvili.
The letter reads: “If adopted, the draft Law will expose GPB to a higher risk of undue political interference. The Council of Europe (CoE) standards underline the importance of independent and adequate funding. Recommendation CM/Rec (2021)1 of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on public service media governance provides in Art 26 that “ (…) it inevitably remains the State’s responsibility to set both the method and the level of funding, (…) it is nevertheless imperative that (…) the funding provided is adequate to meet the agreed role and remit of the public service media, including offering sufficient security for the future as to allow reasonable future planning and the process for deciding the level of funding should not be able to interfere with the public service media’s editorial autonomy.”
EBU writes that “the significant cut of the GPB’s budget would not only jeopardize the production of content but would create tensions and uncertainty within the institution.”
On November 18, the European Broadcasting Union, Reporters Without Borders and the South East Europe Media Organization issued a Joint statement, expressing concern about the Parliament’s initiative. The statement says: “If this draft law is adopted, it will undermine the Council of Europe standards for independent and adequate funding, the EBU’s funding principles advocating for stable and independent funding, and the proposed European Union’s Media Freedom Act, which recommends multi-year funding allocations to prevent undue influence from annual budget negotiations.”
The statement also calls on the Georgian government “to withdraw the draft law and initiate a thorough public debate.” It adds that the withdrawal of the draft law is “crucial to safeguarding the independence and sustainability of public service media in Georgia, ensuring its ability to fulfil its societal mandate.”
What is to come?
The draft law was supported by 79 deputies, an absolute majority of the deputies present at the first reading. The plenary session is scheduled for December 14-15. After meeting Speaker Papuashvili and Chairman Kobakhidze, Director General Berdzenishvili said that an agreement was made that the funding scheme would be revised, but not at the expense of GBP’s independence. “It is crucial that the funding is sustainable,” said Berdzenishili.
Chairman of GPB Board of Trustees, Vasil Maglaperidze, said, “We have agreed, without precondition, that the independence of the broadcaster won’t be harmed. […] The current model may have certain flaws, so we agreed to continue working until we arrive at an optimum model. […] We will meet again, and financial experts will get engaged. There is a readiness to continue this work.”
Speaker Papuashvili confirmed that the work on “the best model of funding” will continue. The approximate timeline was not announced.
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